Summary of Discussion of Williams Syndrome, Autism, and Consciousness

Summary prepared by Seth Stocking, Kevin Driscoll, Thomas Pellathy, Nicole Kurz, and William Fields (additions and comments by Frawley)

Williams Syndrome

Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder that is caused by a micro-deletion on the seventh chromosome. The are no obvious brain deformations associated with Williams Syndrome (although Bellugi, Jernigan, and others have made some recent claims that there are), so it is hard to trace the behavioral patterns to a specific location in the brain. There are other biological defects, such as a in levels of elastin and calcitonin (resulting in heart problems and other biological manifestations.)

Linguistically, Williams kids have what is known as a "Cocktail Party personality." They are very talkative and have very good linguistic skills but their speech is disassociated, jumping from one topic to another. They have major problems with spatial processing. They are able to identify objects, but have trouble reproducing them as coherent wholes. (They draw exploded objects). Perhaps there is a relationship between their disconnected cocktail party speech and their exploded representations of objects. It seems as if they have problems forming coherent wholes out of separate pieces, and this manifests itself in language and spatial abilities and in problem solving.

Williams kids have good face recognition skills to the extent that they can even recognize inverted faces. They seem to be good at theory of mind (at least Karmiloff-Smith et al. claim so on tests of false belief and other measures of metarepresentation). They have the ability to identify objects but have problem recreating them, yet they have no problems tracing objects, which rules out a problem with motor skills. In addition they seem to be aware of the their own mistakes. They have serious deficits dealing with numbers, spatial cognition, and problem solving yet preserve theory of mind and have the ability to talk about others' beliefs.

[So, while Williams children appear to have a social knowledge deficit because of their personality disorders and lack of control over speech in social interacitons, they otherwise exhibit good performance in areas that are thought to subserve social knowledge. Does this mean they have or lack a social module?]


There is no clear cause of autism. There are a variety of different explanations, ranging from genetic defects to environmental factors. Autistics exhibit self-isolating behavior (shutting themselves off from the world), and highly repetitive behavior which seems to serve a calming effect.

One possible explanation of autism is that they are unable to filter out relevant information from trivial information, which results in an overflow of input to the brain. Perhaps the "editor" that would focus on information that is relevant may be missing, defective, or somehow not working. Autism may be ften accompanied by savant-type behavior (such as over-developed mathematical abilities, or the sort of language found in Christopher in Smith and Tsimpli's recent study.)

In terms of language they are generally good, especially in morphology, but bad with ceratin areas of semantics and pragmatics. They don't seem to lack the necessary (formal and conceptual) semantic representations; they just have trouble calling up the appropriate interpretation (possibly because of a lack of constraints on their semantic interpretations.)

Baron-Cohen's work (on what he calls "mindblindness") suggests that they lack Theory of Mind. Their object, face, and spatial reasoning is intact, but they suffer from general social problems: they are bad at judging expressions, and have trouble recognizing emotions on faces.

If they lack a theory of mind, do they have self-knowledge. Do we need theory of mind to be able to interpret ourselves?

Consciousness and Feelings

Consciousness is a notoriously "slippery" term, because it is often used as a cover term for a variety of different cognitive phenomena. There is no definite consensus on what consciousness is so it has become necessary to examine a variety of different views.

Churchland says that consciousness is simply the brain (there is no difference between consciousness and brain activity.) Heat isn't caused by atoms moving around: heat is atoms moving around. Thus, consciousness may not be a function of the mind-brain or caused by the mind-brain. It is the mind brain.

Other positions on this issue range from disbelief, to agnosticism, to dualism, to eliminativism: e.g., Searle says the brain causes the mind; Nagel believes that subjective awareness isn't reducible to brain functions: see also Descartes, Leibniz, Jackson, Flanagan, Dennett.

Consciousness is usually used as a cover term for a variety of phenomena:

Dreams -- conscious states? A prominent Neurologist through studies determined that the frequency of brain activity associated with consciousness is around 40 Hz, and he found that during REM sleep people have the same rate of brain activity implying consciousness during sleep (see Crick, Koch, and Hobson; see also Flanagan's book Self Expressions).

Could what we call consicousness be, in the end, the agglomeration of all these properties in the run-time of the brain?