Archive for August, 2013

Autism in Science Fiction TV: Alphas and Eureka

Alphas is a (sadly) cancelled show in the Sci Fi channel (ok, ok, Syfy; I never quite got why they changed it). It narrated the life and lore of Dr. Lee Rosen and his relationships with “Alphas”, people that showed superhuman abilities like super strength, hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, etc. and so on.  They even had an immortal man, kind of a clawless Wolverine but way more fearsome. Yes, in my opinion Alphas had more than a passing resemblance to the X-Men, but with somewhat more credible powers, at least in the first season.

The show had a lot of potential; we’ll never know what it could have become. Among other things, I wanted Dr. Rosen to be revealed as an Alpha down the line, but that did not happen and again, now we’ll never know…

One of the reasons why I liked Alphas so much is that one of its main characters, in fact, my favorite character in the series, Gary Bell, had high-functioning autism. He also had THE coolest “superpower”, he was able to see parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that normal humans are not physically capable of seeing, like radio waves for example (they never addressed the source of his ability in the show, but perhaps he had additional photoreceptors?).

In a wonderful allegory to the autistic condition, Gary literally saw the world in a truly unique way. He would kind of “see” frequencies invisible to the rest of us. In Gary’s case one of the consequences of that is that he did not need a computer to use the Internet. He could just see the signals with his naked eyes and was even able to manipulate them. Now if you ask me, that’s really what “online” was surely meant to be.  Moreover, Gary saw the internet directly, exactly as it is; he is the ultimate hacker!

To construct this character, the writers masterfully took advantage of the hand gestures that many autistic individuals make. These gestures are a little bit like conducting music and the actor that played Gary (Ryan Cartwright) played it perfectly. I know that because my own son who is in the autistic spectrum, frequently moves his hands in a very similar way!

Wait; what if…?

Anyway, Gary was a remarkable character in multiple ways, but besides the obvious, the thing that I liked the most about him is that he saved the day more than once. He did not depend on the others for help; I remember one of my favorite scenes of the show; an episode where Gary was in an undercover investigation at a high school and one kid called him a “retard” (fellow parents, don’t you love it when that happens? O_o…).  Gary’s reply was nothing short of epic. I will let you find the episode and watch it for yourself. At any rate, the main point is that Gary could hold his own and fend for himself in society. Also, in more mundane matters, he could manage doing things like hailing a cab, get groceries, etc. We all know that this is not true of many people with autism.

About Eureka (oh, how I miss Eureka!), it was another Syfy show, this one about a fictional town founded in the 1940s that was called home by arguably the best minds if not of the planet, at least of the US. Maybe I will talk more about Eureka in another post, But for now I wanted to mention that Eureka also had an autistic character, albeit way less developed than Alphas’ Gary. Let’s talk about him.

In Eureka, one of the main characters was Dr. Allison Blake (whom I find really, really pretty with full knowledge of my dear wife). Dr. Blake has a son, Kevin, who had autism and also had high mathematical ability. He actually saved the day in an early episode (I think that it was actually the very first episode if I’m not mistaken).

As I said before, Kevin’s character was supportive, not central and therefore he was not in every episode. However, when they showed him, they often returned to the autistic storyline. In at least three of these storylines that I recall, they explored how Kevin was cured of his autism.

  • The first time was by the exposure to a mysterious radiation from a mysterious artifact, which cured him, but this radiation proved harmful and when they blocked it to save Kevin’s life he went back to being autistic.
  • In another episode (I think it was a dream sequence, but I am not positive) Kevin had a contraption attached to his head that somehow cured or neutralized his autism.
  • Finally, in a time travel accident, an alternate reality was created in which Kevin did not have autism. They even speculated that Kevin himself fiddled with the timeline on purpose and in a very precise way to cause the accident that cured him. Over time, the show was heavily criticized by their handling of the autism-related stories, but I will not explore these criticisms here.

Well, about autism, you can read a sample of my opinion & experiences with autism here, here, here and here. I have written several others in my own blog.

One of the most delicate aspects in this matter is that the very concept of “curing” autism is quite controversial in some circles, with understandable passion on both sides of the issue. I have said before and I emphatically say again that I love my son, but I hate autism. If you disagree with me, it is your right, but it is also my right to hate something that puts the welfare and general safety of my son at risk and which especially terrifies me when I think what is going to happen to him when we are not around. This is not a trivial matter; among other things I worry about whether people will be kind and understanding to him and I also worry about more serious things… If it not were for these concerns or if I we able to take care of him forever, his autism would not matter to me one tiny bit because he is delightful. If you want to know more about what I think about this, I explore it a little more extensively in my original post. I encourage you to read it entirely before reacting to it.

Going back to topic, what is really important in my view about how autism is portrayed in science fiction, particularly in TV is that until very recently, the word “autism” implied a child hurting him/her self or the image of “Rain Man” at best. Actually, in a very personal note, when my own boy was diagnosed, those were the images that came to my mind and it was devastating. With time and through various sources I educated myself. Now I know that autism is a true spectrum disease (and by the way, the very idea of calling it a disease is also controversial to some). As a consequence of this variability, we will see people that have severe symptoms and people that are “almost normal” whatever that is.

At the very least, I for one am happy that autism is getting more “air time” so that more people are aware of it. I am very happy that there are several other science fiction TV series that touch upon autism as well and even a few novels that explore it. To all that I say, keep them coming! That helps by providing information and educate the public on what autism is and what it is not.

This is important, because in serious matters like this, there is no such thing as too much information. Do you know why?

Information truly is power; it truly is because the more information we have the more we can celebrate what’s been called “neurodiversity”, of which autism is part of. By understanding and (why not?) embracing neurodiversity we can come up with ways to help those who cannot take care of themselves because their neurobiology betrayed them.


Picture credits:;

It’s Just A Memory

Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. But even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.

Elizabeth Loftus, Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget

Human memory has served as plot fodder for science fiction for years. In “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” a short story by Philip K. Dick, REKAL Incorporated can implant “extra-factual memories” – memories of things that never happened that are “more real than the real thing.” In The Golden Age by John Wright, the novel’s posthuman protagonist has deleted the last 300 years of his memories — including, of course, the memory of doing so. As he tries to reconstruct why, he learns that everyone else deleted their memories of him as well. And in the movie Inception, a team of corporate spies infiltrate people’s dreams to discover information and plant false memories.

So what do we really know about human memory? How accurate is it? Can it be manipulated, and if so, how? Using Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Schacter’s book, The Seven Sins of Memory as a guide, let’s look at what we know, think we know, and aren’t sure we know about the fallibility of human memory.

Transience: a decreasing memory over time
In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his groundbreaking article “Über das Gedchtnis” (“Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology”) in which he described experiments he conducted on himself to describe the process of forgetting. In order to test for new information, Ebbinghaus tested his memory for periods of time ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days, memorizing nonsense syllables, such as “WID” and “ZOF”. By repeatedly testing himself after various time periods and recording the results, he was the first to describe the shape of what is known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, which revealed a relationship between forgetting and time. Initially, information is often lost very quickly after it is learned. Factors such as how the information was learned and how frequently it was rehearsed play a role in how quickly these memories are lost. The stronger the memory, the longer one retains it. A typical graph of the forgetting curve shows that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material.

Transience can be seen in both short- and long-term memory. For psychologists, short-term memory, means just the things that are in your mind right now, while long-term memory is anything you store to be retrieved at a later time. Studies have shown that both types of memory can be extremely fragile over their respective timescales. In Schacter’s, The Seven Sins of Memory, he describes how several days after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, a group of California undergraduates provided researchers with detailed accounts of how they learned about the jury’s verdict. When the researchers tested students’ memories 15 months later about the verdict, only half recalled accurately how they found out about the decision. Asked again nearly three years after the verdict, less than 30% of students’ recollections were accurate; nearly half were dotted with major errors.

Absent-mindedness: forgetting to do things
This is memory loss resulting from failure to pay attention when carrying out an act—putting your keys or glasses down without registering where you’re putting them. Schacter uses the example of cellist Yo Yo Ma. In October 1999, Ma left his $2.5 million cello, made in 1733 by Antonio Stradivari, in a New York cab. Apparently, he was preoccupied with other things and forgot to remind himself to ask the cab driver to retrieve his cello from the trunk.

There are two central factors in how and why we are absent-minded. One is how much attention we’re paying at the crucial moment, the other is how deeply we encode a memory.

A classic study demonstrates how central attention is to absent-mindedness. In 1999, an experiment on change-blindness was conducted by D. J. Simons and C. F. Chabris. Participants watched a video of people passing a basketball between each other, and were asked to count the number of passes. After about 30 seconds of people passing the basketball, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks right through the center of the scene, stops, turns, looks at the camera, then turns again and walks out of shot. On average around half the people who took part didn’t notice the gorilla.

Another classic experiment demonstrates how the depth at which we process information affects our absent-mindedness. In 1975, Fergus Craik and Endel Tulving set about testing the strength of memory traces created using three different levels of processing:

1. Shallow processing: participants were shown a word and asked to think about the font it was written in.
2. Intermediate processing: participants were shown a word and asked to think about what it rhymes with.
3. Deep processing: participants were shown a word and asked to think about how it would fit into a sentence, or which category of “thing” it was.

Participants who encoded the information most deeply remembered the most words when given a surprise test later. But it also took them longer to encode the information in the first place. But most importantly, participants had to do the right type of encoding. For example considering a word’s meaning for a long time did help its recall, but putting equivalent effort into thinking about its structure didn’t.

Another type of absent-mindedness involves prospective memory – trying to remember to do something in the future. These tasks involve setting a mental alarm clock triggered either by some event occurring, like leaving work, or by a particular time. Psychologists have found the ways in which we are absent-minded in prospective memory can depend on whether we’re trying to remember a future event or a future time. Normally we depend on external cues to jog our memories, such as looking at a clock, or at a note we’ve left ourselves. We usually forget event-based prospective memories when we don’t see the cue. We don’t notice the clock, for example, because we’re in a hurray to get somewhere. Time-based prospective memories depend more on how good we are at generating cues for ourselves. For example, someone might remember to brush their at the same time by always doing as soon as they wake up and right before going to bed.

Absent-mindedness can have can have disastrous consequences. A pilot forgets a crucial item on their takeoff checklist and misses a problem that causes the plane to crash, or a surgeon forgets to suture an artery when finishing operating on a patient that causes them to die from internal bleeding. But sometimes it can be a blessing. Take the case of the Russian journalist Solomon Shereshevskii. Shereshevskii’s memory was so perfect he could remember everything he heard or read. But he found it difficult to ignore insignificant events. A sneeze or cough would be imprinted on his memory forever. And his memories were so highly detailed he found it difficult to think in the abstract or know which facts were important and which weren’t. Shereshevskii eventually became a social recluse; ending up a prisoner to his immense memory.

Blocking: the tip-of-the-tongue experience
This is characterized by being able to retrieve quite a lot of information about the target word without being able to retrieve the word itself. You may know the meaning of the word, how many syllables the word has, or its initial sound or letter, but you can’t retrieve it. The experience is coupled with a strong feeling you know the word and that it’s hovering on the edges of your thought. Studies on blocking have shown that around half of the time we will become ‘unblocked’ after about a minute. The rest of the time it may take days to recover the memory.

A study published in the journal Neuron, shows that we’re also able to voluntarily forget things. Researchers were able to discover two methods of forgetting by conducting fMRI brain scans on volunteers as they remembered, and then purposely forgot, associations between word pairs. The first way is to essentially stop the brain’s remembering system from working, trying to block them out entirely. The second way is to have a substitute memory for the brain to remember instead of the one we want to block out, thinking about other things that would replace memories of the associations.

Another type of blocking is said to be caused by experiences so horrific that the human brain seals them away, only to be recalled years later either spontaneously or through therapy. This type of blocking, known by the diagnostic term dissociative amnesia and more colloquially as recovered memories. In Sigmund Freud’s theory of “repression” the mind automatically banishes traumatic events from memory to prevent overwhelming anxiety. Freud further theorized that repressed memories cause “neurosis,” which could be cured if the memories were made conscious.

The theory of unconsciously repressing the memory of traumatic experiences is controversial. Most psychologists accept as fact that it’s common to consciously repress unpleasant experiences, and to spontaneously remember such events long afterward. Most of the controversy centers around recovered memories during repressed memory therapy (RMT). Critics of RMT maintain that many therapists are not helping patients recover repressed memories, but are suggesting and planting false memories of alien abduction, sexual abuse, and satanic rituals.

During the 1980s, claims of childhood sexual abuse based on recovered memories led to numerous highly publicized court cases. A number of the supposed victims retracted their allegations in the early 1990s, saying they had been swayed by therapeutic techniques. The argument continued throughout the 1990s, driven by high profile cases such as that of actress Roseanne Barr, and by people who claimed that their abusers had been set free because of testimony against repressed memories by psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus, a research psychologist who has devoted her life to the study of memory.

So how real are repressed memories? Some argue that it’s plausible that memories of childhood sexual abuse could be buried for years and then recalled, and that motivated forgetting, dissociative amnesia, or some other mechanism could account for repressed memories. Others argue that the idea of recovered repressed memories is implausible, contradicting a) that vivid experiences (as sexual abuse would presumably be) create lasting memories, b) memories change and are reconstructed over time, even those that are easily accessible and frequently recalled, and c) thoughts that we experience as remembered may come from sources other than memories of actual experiences of our own.

Next time I’ll look at the remaining four sins of memory.


Benoit, Roland G. and Michael C. Opposing Mechanisms Support the Voluntary Forgetting of Unwanted Memories. Neuron, Volume 76, Issue 2, 450-460.

Craik, F. I. M., and Tulving, E. Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.

DePrince AP, Brown LS, Cheit RE, Freyd JJ, Gold SN, Pezdek K, Quina K., Motivated forgetting and misremembering: perspectives from betrayal trauma theory. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. 2012;58:193-242.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann, 1885/1913. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. ().

Fletcher, Camille. Repressed Memories: Do Triggering Methods Contribute to Witness Testimony Reliability?, 13 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 335, 341.

Freud, Sigmund, 1923/1990. The Ego and the Id. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Luria, A.R. 1968/1987. The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory. Lynn Solotaroff, translator. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory. Learning and Memory, 12, 361–366.

Loftus, Elizabeth F., 1980. Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget, Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Neisser, U., & Becklen, R., Selective looking: Attending to visually specified events. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 480-494.

Pendergrast, Mark, 1996. Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access Books.

Schacter, Daniel L, 2002. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Boston, MA: Mariner Books.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28, 1059-74.

Winter, Alison, 2012. Memory: Fragments of a Modern History. Chicago:IL: University Of Chicago Press

Steal your food

When I was in college, my botany lab instructor had a cartoon on her door about ways to save the world. I don’t remember the other nine, but “Teach your dog to photosynthesize” has stuck with me over the intervening decades. That may be unlikely (though think of the savings in kibble), but some other animals have figured it out.

The sea slug Elysia chlorotica, for one.

Photosynthetic sea slug

If your biology teacher told you that animals couldn’t photosynthesize, she was only almost right. It turns out a few can practice kleptoplasty, the art of stealing chloroplasts from plants and using them yourself. It’s easy, if you’re the right kind of sea slug: eat some algae, digest most it, stuff the chloroplasts into their own tubules, profit.

It gets weirder, though: unlike most other species that steal chloroplasts, these sea slugs are born with algal DNA that lets them take care of their chloroplasts. This podcast interviews some of the scientists involved, if you’re into listening to your science as well as reading it.

Our terrestrial ecosystem is complicated and varied enough that many of the things we think are true are really just mostly true. How much weirder will it be when we finally meet up with non-terrestrial life? Or will it be no weirder than what we’ve already found?

Happy Marsiversary

We here at Science in My Fiction have written extensively about NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars: the terror of landing on another planet, the successful landing and its early results.

Curiosity has been wandering Mars for a year today. What’s new?

We learned this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition that the landing was not as smooth as the public had been told: a vital navigational component was just a few centimeters out of place, and the discrepancy was not discovered until the very last minute. Change the programming and hope that everything works out? Don’t change the programming and hope that everything works out? Science can be full of tension and drama: it’s not just the science itself that can inspire fiction, but the stories of the people who do the science. (Listen to the interview itself, don’t just read the transcript.)

The article accompanying that NPR transcript has a wonderful video about the landing, cominding animations and actual footage. Curiosity has sent back thousands of photos, heaps of data, and demonstrated that Gale Crater once possessed the conditions necessary for life to exist. What’s next, for the scientists and engineers and their rover?