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Monday, February 17, 2014

Empathy and Asperger's From the Lewis Thomas of Mathematics…

(Now with Addenda, at bottom....)

Not for the first time ;-), a tweet by Steven Strogatz caught my eye today.

But before I get to that tweet let me say that Strogatz was actually responding to another tweet from Jordan Ellenberg linking to a recent piece Strogatz did about the need for "empathy" in effective math communication:


A wonderful read, especially delightful for its interesting discussion of three of Strogatz's science communication "heroes": Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, and Lewis Thomas.

So DO read that piece. The tweet, however, from Dr. Strogatz that caught my eye ran as follows:

"A lot of us in math are on the Asperger's-autism spectrum, which can make the empathy issue even more challenging."

I thought that was a rather interesting remark, that 140 characters couldn't do justice to, so I googled around to see what I might find about Aspergers relation to math. Essentially, from what I saw, it seems safe to say that Aspergers individuals exhibit no significantly better mathematical (or other analytical) skill than the general population; indeed, many struggle greatly with math, the Asperger's spectrum being quite wide. But this isn't really what Strogatz is hinting at anyway… he's coming from the other side of the equation and implying that the population of (professional) mathematicians may have a higher number of Asperger's individuals within it than the population as a whole (i.e. the population of mathematicians might tend toward high Aspergers scores, even if Aspergers individuals, as a whole, don't tend toward mathematical aptitude) -- I really didn't find much in my brief search empirically addressing that question.

So am curious if anyone knows of any studies that have looked at say PhD.-level mathematicians or just working mathematicians, to see what percentage of them may score high for Aspergers, and is it greater than the general population?  It would be an easy study to conduct, since there are simple verbal tests to indicate (not diagnose, but nonetheless, indicate) one's potential position on an Aspergers scale, and by administering such a test to a large enough random sample of working mathematicians, one might get an initial indication of mathematicians' standing relative to the overall population.

ADDENDUM:  Thanks to all who sent along references/links to studies of this question. Possibly the best, easily-referenced source is this 2001 study from Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues:


Baron-Cohen is one of the main proponents of the notion that mathematicians/scientists do indeed have increased predilection for the high end of Asperger's spectrum. Not everyone agrees with that, and the issues/variables are very complex, but here's part of the conclusion from the above study which utilized the AQ test as a measure of tendency to high-functioning autism:

"Finally, scientists score higher than non-scientists, and within the sciences, mathematics, physical scientists, computer scientists, and engineers score higher than the more human or life-centred sciences of medicine (including veterinary science) and biology. This latter finding replicates our earlier studies finding a link between autism spectrum conditions and occupations/skills in maths, physics, and engineering."
Of course all this plays into the stereotypical view people often hold of nerdy, geeky mathematicians... I don't really have too great a problem with that, except to caution that all generalizations are mushy, and "mathematician," like any other category includes a wide range of individuals and personalities.

ADDENDUM II:  Now someone sends along this link to an abstract further indicating a relationship of high-functioning autism with mathematicians:


A point I'd want to emphasize (given my cautionary statement above) is that while the mathematicians here exhibit significantly higher diagnoses than a control group, even among the mathematicians the rate of autism remains low at 1.85%. (For what it's worth, might also note that the subjects in this study, were all undergraduates at a single university, not randomly-selected professional or working mathematicians).

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