These people are the opposite of stereotypical geeks

This week’s NYT Magazine has a fascinating article about people with a rare developmental disorder called Williams syndrome, who have some cognitive defects but also an infectious, gregarious charm.

Many with Williams have so vague a concept of space, for instance, that even as adults they will fail at six-piece jigsaw puzzles, easily get lost, draw like a preschooler and struggle to replicate a simple T or X shape built with a half-dozen building blocks. These deficits generally erase about 35 points from whatever I.Q. the person would have inherited without the deletion. Since the average I.Q. is 100, this leaves most people with Williams with I.Q.’s in the 60s.

People with Williams can’t be expected to function well in the normal world, and yet they’re compensated for their lowered IQ with an exceptional affinity for words and a total lack of social fear. They’ll talk to anyone, and people usually are happy to talk back.

Ursula Bellugi, the director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., said: “I didn’t have to talk to them long to realize something special was going on. Here they had these great cognitive deficits. Yet they spoke with the most ardent and delightful animation and color.”

Bellugi gave an array of language and cognitive tests to three groups: Williams children and teenagers, Down syndrome kids with similar I.Q.’s and developmentally average peers. “We would do these warm-up interviews to get to know them, ask about their families,” said Bellugi. “Only, the Williams kids would turn the tables. They’d tell you how pretty you look or ask, ‘Do you like opera?’ They would ornament their answers in a way other kids didn’t. For instance, you’d ask an adolescent, ‘What if you were a bird?’ The Down kids said things like: ‘I’m not a bird. I don’t fly.’ The Williams teens would say: ‘Good question! I’d fly through the air being free. If I saw a boy I’d land on his head and chirp.’ ”

Scientists who study the brain and social interactions find people with Williams a rich field for study. Their unique neurological makeup gives the researchers the opportunity to figure out what exactly is the relationship between our intelligence and our social understanding. There are some interesting ideas and conclusions detailed in the Magazine article, including one which is particularly meaningful to me: that humans evolved the big brains that we have not for purposes of finding food or defending ourselves, but so we could comprehend, analyze, and act on the complexities of living in group society. As I grow older and think more and more on what it all means and why we’re all here, I become increasingly convinced that our relationships are all we have and all that matter. In fact, this relationship-centric belief encompasses everything else we also need to think about — politics, the environment, family, vocation, etc — to form my worldview. (In Randy Cohen‘s book on ethics, which I am currently reading, he also does a very compelling job of linking all these things together.) But that’s kind of a big topic to tackle right now, when I should be getting to sleep. Read the Williams article and see if it doesn’t get you thinking about us as social animals. Then leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com. Incidentally, there is a recent film about a woman with Williams syndrome; it’s fiction, but the protagonist is played by a woman who has it. And Daniel, I can’t believe I never replied to your comment! I’m sorry!]

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One response to “These people are the opposite of stereotypical geeks

  1. I enjoyed reading the article!

    I found Meyer-Lindenberg’s explanation for the development of sociability particularly compelling. The mechanisms for recognizing basic cues in, say, facial expressions and gestures, seem primitive enough to be biologically plausible, and yet can combine to guide very complex behavior. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reconcile the trend with Williams brains having underdeveloped dorsal regions.

    I agree that many motivations in life can be linked to social relationships. Perhaps it is related to the complexity of social interactions and its effect in stimulating the brain. The example concerning the Williams kids and fragile X kids suggests this might be the case. If so, then is there something else that can be said about what motivates people with fragile X? And people in between?

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