From Kindness to Cruelty: Katrina Fincher on the Duality of Human Nature

While countless writers, artists, and academics explore a certain duality in human nature, they tend to focus on the manifestation and effects of that divided self. Assistant Professor of Psychology Katrina Fincher asks a different question. She wants to know exactly what makes that duality possible within a single individual.

Within clinical psychology, this question is largely uncharted territory. “With a few exceptions, researchers have not examined the mechanisms which enable the same person to shift, quite rapidly, between kindness and cruelty,” she said.

While Fincher’s particular research interests developed during graduate school, they actually took root much earlier. Fincher’s mother grew up in Argentina during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), during which she saw her best friend kidnapped, her aunt imprisoned, and her cousin murdered. Her mother eventually started a new life in the U.S., where Katrina grew up. But summers were spent back in Argentina.

“From May to August, I lived in the shadow of [the regime’s] atrocities. However, most of the year I escaped to an idyllic American suburb, where I lived under the cushy regime of absent-minded academic parents and progressive schools, where safety was taken for granted and I had the luxury to learn empathy and compassion,” Fincher remembered.

That intimate experience of “emotional whiplash” – viewing firsthand the extent to which people could express capacities both for kindness and cruelty – fascinated her. But she never considered psychology research as career until she met her first mentor as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania – the legendary Paul Rozin.

“Paul is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet, and he has such a profound intellectual curiosity that he will make you excited about nearly any idea,” Fincher explained. Inspired by her work with Rozin, which centered on disgust, she decided to pursue graduate work in psychology at Penn with Professor Philip Tetlock. Once again, the working approach Tetlock had to his craft proved more important than his particular interests. “For me research typically starts with people and the degree of intellectual chemistry we have,” she said. “I love the way [Tetlock] thinks and approaches problems,” Fincher said.

Her doctoral dissertation explored perceptual dehumanization, and her research since has broadly centered around “a wide range of issues related to moral psychology” and “the psychological mechanisms which enable humans to live in cooperative social groups.”

Fincher’s overarching interest in the psychology of sociality branches off in two distinct but connected directions. The first concerns the psychological mechanisms that enable empathy or cruelty; the second, the ways in which individuals relate to social values and norms. These two are connected because, according to Fincher, “we deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems.” In this sense, understanding the capacity for extremes of compassion and cruelty means understanding both individual psychological processes as well as broader social ones.

Fincher explores what scientists call “perceptual humanization and dehumanization”; in particular, “the psychological mechanisms which enable people to treat one individual callously and another kindly.”

From Fincher, K.M., Tetlock, P.E. & Morris, M.W. (2017) Interfacing with Faces: Perceptual Humanization and Dehumanization, Current Directions in Psy. Sci.

As illustrated in the above graphic, much of her research looks at the way people perceive one another’s expressions. “Not surprisingly, what matters a great deal is how you engage with the individual’s face. People visually process faces in two qualitatively different ways.”

In a humanizing mode, an individual will take in the other’s face as a whole, generally focusing on the eyes. By contrast, in a dehumanizing mode the observer’s eyes will drift from feature to feature, showing an inability to think of the other in holistic, humanized terms. Demonstrating this difference experimentally has been one of Fincher’s main accomplishments to date.

Yet she is also interested in the larger question: What accounts for this difference? What makes it so that an individual gazes upon someone in such a dehumanizing light? According to Fincher, there are three larger reasons: to enforce norms and facilitate. punishment; to tolerate the suffering of others in situations of high moral conflict; and to enable strategic decision-making.

“We deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems,” Fincher stated. “Humanizing perceptions are elicited in a cooperative context and lead to empathy, compassion, and the desire to fulfill another’s needs even at a personal cost,” Fincher said. “In contrast, dehumanizing perceptions are elicited in competitive situations and function to disengage moral restraint and lead to callousness, indifference, and the desire to ignore another’s pain even for no personal gain.”

In other words, our perception of others is largely determined by the larger institutional or social context, wherein the main determinants are norms and values. Here Fincher makes another distinction between “social norms,” which mean the ordinary socially accepted standards for acceptable behavior, and “sacred values,” which refer to the deeper underlying principles that govern which behaviors become normative or not. Theorists have taken norms to change more speedily than the more fundamental sacred values for any given society. Fincher questions that consensus, however. “[My] work shows that although people claim sacred values are absolute they actually function very similarly to social norms,” she said — work that the Army Research Institute recently awarded $1.2 million.

Since earning her doctorate, Fincher has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Management at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. There, she continued her research into and published several journal articles on a number of psychological phenomena connection to social and moral psychology, including perceptual dehumanization as well as the sacralization of social norms.

During her first year at NSSR, Fincher will be teaching classes on exactly those topics. In Interpersonal Interactions in the fall, she’ll work with graduate students to take a closer look at conflict, the social attributions we make about others, and how a social environment influences how we think and communicate. In the spring, she’ll teach a broader survey on moral psychology, and how morality and moral issues connect to recent sociopolitical issues – topics at the heart of NSSR’s century-long work engaging in the most pressing issues of the day.

Fulbright Grants Send Two NSSR Students to Mexico

Although Tania Aparicio and Guadalupe Chavez were both New School for Social Research (NSSR) students, their paths just never crossed. It’s not too surprising: Aparicio’s doctoral studies in Sociology and many student jobs keep her pretty busy, while Chavez just finished her master’s degree in Politics.

What’s finally brought these emerging scholars together? A profound interest in Mexico, and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. As NSSR’s two Fulbright Scholarships recipients, Aparicio and Chavez will spend the 2018-2019 academic year in Mexico carrying out critical research in their fields.

Two students winning Fulbright grants is enough for any school to celebrate. But two students winning Fulbright grants to the same country — which accepts fewer than 10% of applicants — is something particularly special.

As NSSR extends its warm congratulations to Aparicio and Chavez, Research Matters is excited to share their important work with our wider community. Their stories showcase not only the quality research NSSR students are carrying out, but also the doors that such scholarships can open to students at all levels of graduate study who aim to do nothing short of change the world.

New Directions at a New School

For the Brooklyn-born Chavez, charting a future intellectual itinerary was directly linked to connecting with her family’s history. “Being the daughter of Mexican migrants, I was always interested in how U.S. immigration policies were designed at the federal level, and why these policies always created a distinctive binary between the deserving and undeserving migrant.”

While studying political science and getting involved in local activism, Chavez interned on Capitol Hill and found the level of legislative discourse surrounding immigration policy lacking. “How can these politicians talk or even design migration policies when they lack a critical understanding of migration, and have never experienced what is like to live in constant fear of having their family deported? My experiences in Capitol Hill challenged me to think more critically about citizenship, the construction of illegality and rethink migration and mobility beyond a nation-state framework,” Chavez said.

After earning her BA, Chavez sought out ways to research immigration policy at the graduate level, focusing on U.S.-Mexico relations as a way of making a tangible contribution to those communities. ”I was looking for a program that examined public policies of course, but that also interrogated complex concepts such as citizenship, belonging, membership mobility, and borders. I was also looking for a politics department that studied global political issues beyond a state-centric framework, and NSSR has been the best place for examining these complex concepts,” Chavez explained.

Aparicio’s journey involves migration as well, but has also been driven by an interest in alternative education and the arts — specifically, film. She explained that because of changes in tuition and class ratios at her school in Lima, Peru, “we had a student-organized protest that turned into a conference. My role was to do research on alternative forms of education. I found out about John Dewey and I did a presentation about Bennington College and The New School.”

When Aparicio’s undergraduate institution shuttered, she decided to apply to The New School — not to NSSR, but rather to the Schools of Public Engagement (SPE), where she could study film and social science. A generous scholarship and willingness to accept her previously earned credits, plus The New School’s proximity to New York’s film industry, made the choice easy. After graduating and working in film for two years, she realized on-set life was not for her and decided to return to The New School, this time as a graduate student.

“I didn’t know anyone who had come to grad school,” Aparicio remembered. “And so I applied to the school that had opened doors to me before. I had always been interested in the sociology of cultural production, in understanding critically the meaning of cultural production in our society. When I came, however, I was still very much steeped in the language of communications.”

Her transition from film to sociology was marked by an encounter with the professor who would become her doctoral advisor: Associate Professor of Sociology Rachel Sherman. “I remember a meeting early in my first year where she said, ‘You have to stop thinking about what is on the screen and start thinking about the communities that are around the screen that bring the screen to life.’ That completely blew my mind and made me realize ‘Oh, that’s what I’m interested in!’” Aparicio said, adding, “I feel [Professor Sherman] was the first person who actually knew what to say to direct my gaze in a sociological way.”

Bringing It All Together

Once at NSSR, Chavez similarly worked closely with professors to distill her interests, while also noting the importance of learning from her peers and attending lectures and events on campus. Her final research proposal, and the one that helped her write her winning Fulbright application: “I am interested in exploring how formal and informal institutions respond to the “return” and expulsion of migrants from the U.S to Mexico and the types of organizations and mobilizations that arise after expulsion. Moreover, I also have an interest in decolonial approaches to international relations and to studying migration and mobility. Overall, I am interested in translating theory into innovative political practices.”

Aparicio, on the other hand, developed her dissertation topic in a more hands-on way. “In the second year of my MA, I went to Mexico. I was thinking I was going to write about a social movement that started in the film industry after NAFTA was signed, which had a big impact on the film industry,” she said. While this idea eventually fell by the wayside, it planted the seed for a new research project. Going to the Cineteca Nacional, she started to think about how to research film spaces themselves. Back in New York, Aparicio learned that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was the first museum to include film in their collection, “creating a kind of division between film as art and movies as entertainment.” Deciding to bridge the two cities, she proposed, in her PhD application, a comparative study between MoMA and Mexico’s Cineteca. In the summer of 2017, a research grant from the Janey Program in Latin American Studies helped her return to Cineteca Nacional and secure important institutional affiliations to bolster her Fulbright application.

Aparicio’s two advisors reflect her diverse academic background. With Professor Sherman, she investigates how prestige is constructed; with University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici, she focuses more on the institutions themselves. Economic anthropologist Janet Roitman and a CUNY Graduate Center faculty member round out her preliminary dissertation committee, and she also hopes to collaborate with Associate Professor of Sociology Virag Molnar, who has a special interest in the sociology of art.

Plans for Mexico

For each student, the Fulbright Scholarship is a unique opportunity to propel their research forward with fundamental field research.

As Chavez described it, her Fulbright project focuses on “how formal and informal institutions respond to the ‘return’ and deportation of the Mexican diaspora, particularly of the formerly undocumented youth that grew up in the U.S.” She will also probe the types of organizing and mobilization taking place in Mexico after deportation or return, “especially when so many deportees and returnees experience ‘double abandonment’ and estranged citizenship in their country of birth.” Conducting this face-to-face research in Mexico will help Chavez explore this multifaceted phenomenon through a robust “bilateral and transnational lens…[and] see how other scholars and students working on this topic handle similar work. avoid and or address potential research and fieldwork dilemmas.”

Aparicio’s decision to apply to the Fulbright program came as she reached a crossroads in her early career. “As much as I’m a student, I am also a worker at the university. I’ve been working really hard in order to support myself. So I knew when I went into the PhD that if I was going to take this risk, I had to go all out.”

In practice, this meant that she developed a meticulous study timeline, specifying when she wanted to finish classes, write for publications, and apply for grants. “This year the goal was to get a grant…otherwise it just wasn’t sustainable,” she explained.

After attending a workshop run by Katie Wolff, the Fulbright representative for The New School, Aparicio was motivated to apply for the scholarship — especially because the Mexican program explicitly encouraged projects that engaged art communities in the U.S. and Mexico. She similarly advises future applicants to “know for which grants you’d make a good candidate.”

Fulbright funding, in addition to a dissertation fellowship, will enable Aparicio to stay in Mexico City for nine months, largely researching at the Cineteca. “Now I’m going to be able to just focus on my work. I can’t even imagine what I’ll be able to do over the next year…without having to stress about money, healthcare,” she said.

In addition to Wolff’s workshop, Aparicio and Chavez received invaluable encouragement, feedback, and support from Tsuya Yee, assistant dean of academic affairs; Jennifer MacDonald, associate director for graduate career success, NSSR professors such as Associate Professor of Politics Anne McNevin and SPE professors such as Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies Alexandra Délano Alonso.

Looking Forward

The young scholars are excited about what’s coming next. In matters both scholarly and personal, the Fulbright is an important achievement. “I look forward to immersing myself as much as possible in my family’s culture,” said Chavez, “meeting new people, learning more about Mexican politics, particularly the relationships between the state and civil society, how the Mexican state manages and addresses migration from its southern border. I hope to become involved in my new community as much as possible….I wonder how locals will respond to my identity as Mexican and American and to what extent will I fit in the community.”

For her part, Aparicio spoke of a vital opportunity for reconnection. “My parents haven’t been able to come to the U.S., ever. They’ve been denied the tourist visa. So I’m looking forward to being able to go to their next visa interview and show them that I’m a Fulbright.”

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

Simon Critchley in Conversation: Talking about Thinking About Football (…or Soccer)

To mark the occasion of Simon Critchley’s newest book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (Penguin Random House), Research Matters sat down for an hour-long conversation with the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy about the “beautiful game.”

____________________

Research Matters: I want to start by talking about time, or actually about temporality. One of the recurring themes in the book is the way soccer helps to explain the peculiar way our perception and affective experience of time are neither linear nor constant. Where are you coming from philosophically here, and how does soccer help punctuate and organize our experience of time?

Simon Critchley: Philosophers for the last century—[Henri] Bergson, and most importantly, [Martin] Heidegger—have been trying to talk about the experience of lived time; to advance the claim that lived time is not the same as clock time. Clock time is your sequence of now-points—not-yet, now, no-longer-now—as a linear, uniform continuum. Various philosophers have been arguing, rightly in my view, that that’s not how we live our fundamental experience of time. Time is something that is not linear. It’s not governed by the clock; it’s shaped by the environment, by the world that we’re inhabiting at that time.

In soccer, it’s a particularly compelling and obvious point. You have linear chronometric time, the 90 minutes of the game plus injury time, into two nearly divided 45-minute halves. So there is the objective measure of temporality. Every game lasts as long as the last game. But our experience of the time is very different. So you could do a kind of Einsteinian twin example and say, “Imagine there are twins watching the same game and they support opposing teams. The game is 1-0. One of the twins supports the team that’s winning, and the other twin supports the opposing team.” Their experience of time is fundamentally different. For one, the last minutes of the game—the injury time—are an agony of extended duration. For the other, time seems to accelerate, contract. So there you have an example of the way our experience of time is shaped by this game and how in passages of play [are] completely recognizable, but when you think about it strange things happen with time. That time can suddenly compress, that there can be a movement—a throw in, a flick-on, a movement between two or three players and then let’s say a shot or a goal—and that ten minute sequence of play can be experienced as a second. And they can be replayed! So time compresses and can have this largasso stretching effect.

This is what a lot of people who don’t get about football is that it’s fundamentally about time, but the time is not the stacatto stop-start of most American sports, whether it’s the stop-start of basketball or the usually stop-and-then-occasionally-start of baseball, which of course make perfect sense commercially. American sports were shaped for advertising, whereas football is this extended field of more or less movement. The question is what is happening at any one point. Something is always happening, but people aren’t necessarily scoring goals. So this idea that football is boring because it’s not 57-52 at the end of the game fundamentally misses the point that it’s about watching this extended flowing movement. That’s the joy of the game, it’s watching. There can be fantastic games where nobody scores.

RM: There’s something to be said about the way that is integral to the game, right? The management of time, especially in the midfield. People like [Javier] Mascherano are good because they can control the pace of the game, and move that pace in the direction that benefits the team. He can extend moments or quicken things. There’s something about the way the manipulation of time is part of the strategy.

SC: Yeah. Very clearly in the Argentinian game, the Uruguayan game, and the Italian game. Those three football cultures, which are incredibly important, are about time management and the idea that what looks to other eyes as a cynical, defensive football—that’s the game. I talk in the book about the joys of defensive football. The classical Argentinian teams I grew up watching were brilliant defensive teams that played in the Italian style. You set up to stop the other team scoring, and then maybe get a goal yourself. And that can be ruthless, but there’s a real beauty in that.

I think also about the phenomenon of cheating. I think there’s something really interesting. The dream of any sport is that there will be constitutional clarity about what’s going on and video evidence or whatever it might be. In many sports that is the case. In soccer, it’s not the case, strange things happen every game and that’s not because football players are bigger cheats than other players but because there’s something about the relationship between law and the bending of law that is essential to the game. The objective of the game is to win. And if winning means bending the law, then you bend the law. And the art of a great player—a great defensive player—is knowing how far they can bend that law. That’s a subtle and often invisible art to the amateur, or to the person who just wants to see goals, because they’re not watching how the game is actually played.

Mascherano is a good example of a player who can, in a sense, not necessarily do much in a game. He’s a brilliantly gifted player, but he doesn’t have to do much given that his mastery of space and time organizes—makes the whole thing cohere. You need a player like Mascherano, as [Diego] Maradona said a couple of years ago. The Argentinian team is Mascherano and you find 10 others. His is the first name on the sheet. And these players are not really understood.

“Argentina did not play well today, but it also didn’t allow the opponent to play well, and that’s important.” – Maradona, 2014.

Another great one—there’s a photograph of him in the book—Claude Makélélé. Same thing. He used to be called the water carrier, cause he just carried the water. He just carried the team. There’s a great player called [Nemanja] Matić, played for Chelsea last year, same thing. So what interests me in football is that stuff. It’s not obvious. Football is a subtle art.

Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”