This post is in the Researchers category

One of the primary frustrations encountered throughout this research was a lack of academic writing, in both the music and psychology literature, that included the extended perspectives of the human subjects being studied.  This perspective is not absent, but tends to be limited to a few sentences that illustrate the point being made by the observer-expert.  This made it quite difficult to compare my own experiences of music making and creative processes to others, and much of my insights were initiated through discussions with colleagues.

For example, early in the research period I initiated a “water-cooler” conversation with a colleague;

“I had one of those nasty out-of-time-hearing-experiences last night”

Blank look – “What do you mean?”

“You know, when time gets all chopped up and out of sequence…”

More blank look – “no…, don’t know that one …”

“Like hearing through hammered glass…”

“Ok you’d better tell me about this”

After this experience I went back to the literature, looking for sensory anomalies, and found surprisingly little in terms of descriptions by the person experiencing them.   A similar story surrounds my discovery of my own non-emotional engagement with music. I found several references that “many people with autism report not being moved by music” but very little about what they think about how they perceive it. No one ever tells you what they perceive without prompting, so how do you know that your own experiences are normal, different or unique?

In the arena of autism research, this study suggests that experiencing emotion during a creative process of music making is possible for me and that the emotion is transmitted effectively, despite my alexithymia.  The relationships between the experience, recognition and expression of emotion are still very unclear, but I suspect that further research with as opposed to of autistic individuals will yield some of the answers.  The cry of “nothing about us without us” is raised again.

In his foreward to Linda Andron’s book Our Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome (2001), Tony Attwood draws attention to the idea that assisting people with ASD is about sharing, and finding ways to enter the world of the autistic person but also to enable that person to “identify and have recognized his or her unique qualities”.  It is not possible to recognise uniqueness without comparing it to the “normal”. I would encourage researchers to seek first hand knowledge from autistic adults and adolescents through autoethnographic means as opposed to short answer and tick the box “scales”.  The people you talk too, who write for you, also need to know about your “normal” experiences. Describe your own world because, especially if  Theory of Mind is an issue, they may not know just how different they are, and therefore not realise that it is of interest.

The method of my study has taken a very specific path through the experiences of one person, and attempted to present that experience to others for analysis and comparison.  Access to other individuals with a similar cognitive profile may open up avenues for further research that this study has begun to explore,  including:

  • The relationship between social empathy and musical empathy. In my own situation, a lack of social cognitive empathy, a difficulty in perceiving the emotional states of others, co-exists with a difficulty in perceiving emotion in music.  In both cases, knowledge of the “required” emotion through cognitive or other sensory means eg. layers of meaning in drama or cognitively analysed body language, can convert into internal feelings.
  • The value of music-making as training medium for the balancing of local and global functioning. Enhanced Perceptual Functioning may have a causal or mechanistic relationship to the symptomolgy that led to Enactive Mind Theory. It is possible that music making may provide a platform for study of this relationship.
  • The relationship between alexithymia and musical empathy. The concept of alexithymia is that emotions are experienced but not cognitively recognised and therefore can not be described in words.  I certainly fit that concept much of the time.  However my study indicates that felt, and recognised emotion can be induced cognitively during the composition process and transmitted reasonably accurately, despite this. This implies that the cognitive understanding may be trained to recognise and reproduce emotional affect, and is the central idea behind the Virtual Heart.
  • Further study of the relationship between being fascinated or aroused by music, and moved by it.  Is there a relationship to Type II alexithymia here?
  • Sensory anomalies including fractured hearing, narrowing of field of vision, earworms and the shutting down of one or more senses in circumstances of overload, are aspects of the autism experience that are largely unexplored.

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