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The Curious Incident of Reafferent Loops and the I-Function in Autism

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The Curious Incident of Reafferent Loops and the I-function in Autism


Autism Spectrum Disorders have been violently thrown into the public attention in the whirlwind of biological and psychological research that has been enacted in the last couple of decades. Previously undiagnosed, social deficits and Spectrum-like tendencies were regarded as character flaws, without the association with a medical diagnosis. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and various diagnoses along the spectrum, the entirety of which is encompassed within the umbrella term Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), are a beautifully constructed set of examples to demonstrate the dependencies and the disconnects of brain and behavior. Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, portrays mainly the behavioral components of PDD, though from the comprehensive and incredibly emotive way in which it is written, along with the re-conceptualized notions of patterns in brain and behavior derived from class discussions in Neurobiology and Behavior, taught at Bryn Mawr College, we can deduce brain-behavior coincidences within the story.


The novel tells the story of a canine murder and the mystery-solving adventure that is undertaken by Christopher Boone to find the culprit. The “adventure” can only be referred to as such in light of the psychological, social and emotional quirks and disordered behavior of the main character which leads it to be filled with confusion, villains, and exploration. It is written interspersed with detailed and poignant views into Christopher's understanding of the world. The novel tells tale of his various ways of approaching the components of this view which he cannot control or understand.


Christopher lives in a world very different from that of psychosocially typically developing people. He is, to an extent, self aware enough to know that “people who don’t look at other people’s faces and who don’t know what these pictures mean [a series of emoticons is printed here in the book] […] are all special people like me. And they like being on their own” (199). While he knows that the students who attend his school are considered ‘special needs,’ Christopher does not fully understand, or approve of the distinction between ‘special’ and ‘typical,’ a distinction whose right to existence has been argued against by countless advocates and policy-makers. Never in the novel, despite this awareness of his difference from others and his social preferences and dislikes which mirror stereotyped behaviors of people with a PDD, does Christopher or the author refer to his special needs as what they are—disordered behavior on the Autism Spectrum.


Instead, we, the readers, are able to infer a general diagnosis to fit the behaviors which he displays and intimates to us throughout the story, with the help of our own storytellers. The roles of the storyteller and the I-function in the reader’s experience and the experience of the fictional main character are critically prominent. As a reader, we are continuously reevaluating our opinions and understanding of Christopher, through a behavioral process closely resembling the biological afferent loop. This reafferent process is one by which newly comprehended or observed information from an environment or a cognitive process cue leads to a reappraisal of prior thoughts, and change or reinforcement of previous cognitive or behavioral activity. With each tale of his inability to tell or understand jokes, his paralyzing fear of lies, crowded spaces, the color yellow, we form and reform memory units and stories about Christopher’s life and livelihood. Our I-function dictates these stories, condensing pieces of information into comprehensive understandings which it can then use to enact neural symphonies of emotional and behavioral response to the events as they unfold. But all of this can, and frequently does, also function without ever reaching the I-function. These neural symphonies, as unconscious, implicit activations, produce output which can be received as further input to instigate reafferent loop activity, in which cognitive responses are challenged and transformed.


Christopher’s nervous system is able to do no such thing. The consistency of his I-function and of his more implicit, unconscious reafferent processes in directing these complex neural processes by which humans sense, calculate, and read emotional, social and behavioral action in others is flawed. More importantly, though, the natural impulse to make these observations and deductions without involving the I-function and storyteller is dysfunctional. While Christopher can sense a deficit in his social and emotional responsiveness, and is aware that “people do a lot of talking without using any words” (14), he is unable to properly itemize that concept, and internalize it. While typically developing young adults would employ a reafferent loop of response to input, Christopher is unable to notice the inputs that he receives and adjust his behavior in order to more closely suit them. For instance, Christopher is incapable of adjusting his behavior, his answers to questions or his general social nature as the policeman becomes frustrated with his inability to speak directly about where he is going, what his father has done and how he plans to find his mother.


Further, Christopher is unable to simply receive all of the necessary inputs clearly enough and with enough awareness and social understanding in order to put them to use in a reafferent process. He uses self-stimulatory, stereotyped behaviors like groaning and drowning out sound  because “there is too much information coming into [his] head from the outside world” (7). Christopher has devised ways of controlling his environment, so as not to allow it to control his thinking or output production, in light of his deep rooted anxieties and social confusion. Christopher’s inability and unwillingness to modify his outputs to relate in some way to his inputs and to adjust these outputs in light of new inputs is a clear exhibition of his lack of a psychosocial reafferent loop.


In using our I-function and the implicit, symphonies and reafferent loops that amalgamate various sources of input below the surface of our minds as readers, we can gain a lot of understanding of the Autism spectrum and the characterizations of the disorders from internalizing the stories of Christopher Boone. The behavioral, and expected neural processes fit nicely into the distinctions outlined in Bryn Mawr’s Biology 202, though in the case of this novel, exceptions lend support to the summary of observations that is the “rule.” Brain may equal behavior, but it can only do so when reafferent loops function to reevaluate summaries of observations and make loopy science the model for loopy cognition and a loopy world view. Christopher is without this loopiness, and his behavior demonstrates its absence.


Works Cited


Haddon, Mark. Curious incident of the dog in the night-time. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2004.


Paul Grobstein's picture

reafferent loops and curious incidents

"Christopher’s inability and unwillingness to modify his outputs to relate in some way to his inputs and to adjust these outputs in light of new inputs is a clear exhibition of his lack of a psychosocial reafferent loop."  Emphasis mine.  I'm not sure that justifies "Christopher is without" loopiness in general.  I wonder how he would have read his own story, what changes he would/would not have made in his own understandings/conceptions of himself.