Adapt This

Marta Zaraska writing for Quanta Magazine about loneliness and the brain has a paragraph about adaptation that I need to get into here for reasons that might make sense if you’ve been reading some of my posts about autism.

And yet, although lonely people may find encounters with others uncomfortable and unrewarding, they still seem to crave connection. The late John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago neuroscientist whose research earned him the nickname “Dr. Loneliness,” hypothesized that loneliness is an evolved adaptation, similar to hunger, signaling that something has gone awry in our lives. Just as hunger motivates us to look for food, loneliness should drive us to seek out connection to others. For our ancestors on the African savanna, whose survival probably depended on having ties to a group, that social impulse might have been a matter of life or death.

I don’t care about the loneliness stuff here, what I care about is that suggestion that a presumptively problematic thing the brain does could be “an evolved adaptation, similar to hunger, signaling that something has gone awry” rather than in and of itself the problem.

We know by now that this is a topic I’ve blogged about a number of times: that things we pathologize instead might be adaptations to address whatever the actual problem might be.

In my take, some of the behavioral hallmarks of autism instead could be viewed as adaptations to address the underlying pathology of an atypical sensitivity and susceptibility to becoming overloaded or overwhelmed by stimuli at levels lower than is the case for what are considered normative brains.

So, if “we get lonely because group ties contribute to survival”, then maybe autistics, for example, “get stimmy because a regulated nervous system contributes to survival”.