Concussions, Factor Analysis, and Neurodiversity

Exploding Star

Last fall, my handlebars and that of an oncoming bicyclist’s collided. I sustained a concussion and am now diagnosed with Post-Concussive Syndrome—a label that means that my symptoms didn’t go away as quickly as they do for most people. In a way, an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) is a death—a loss of that individual. My mind is altered, my self-star has imploded. There can be reincarnation: a new individual, integrating what is salvageable, developing in new ways. But, the old is gone. This is true for all of us each day, each breath. But with an ABI, it is stark—the change is large, compressed, pin-pointed, without warning and unexpected.

In statistics, exploratory factor analysis is a technique to group things (from cereal to people) on a broad array of attributes. From how the attributes cluster, factors are created. Each cereal or person is given a score for how closely their attribute profile matches each factor, and assigned to the factor that they most closely match. Statisticians then look at the members of a factor, and label that factor (sugary, high fiber, puffed cereal, etc.). When I was a doctoral student taking statistics, I tried to visualize the web of attributes clustering into factors—and realized that I couldn’t, as it requires envisioning as many dimensions as there are attributes.

Our brains evolved to analyze complex environments by simplifying the overwhelming numerous attributes of each item into groups, and then creating labels for those groups. We can remember and retrieve information more easily when we have conceptualized a few factors, rather than the thousand varying levels of multitudinous attributes. And, speedily matching a saber-toothed tiger to the category of “foe” instead of “food” has obvious survival benefits. Our brains and factor analysis assume that there is an underlying causal structure—that, for example, there are two (and only two) distinct groups of animals: dangerous versus tasty. So, some smart White men developed mathematical formulas to codify what our brains do intuitively. And, with computers, we are able to create factors from huge numbers of items with a broad array of attributes.

Besides being visually unimaginable, factor analysis is recognized by psychologists as subjective (Ford, MacCallum, & Tait). There are judgements about how many factors to include, to which factors non-conforming participants should be placed, and what to label the factors. Using my cereal example, is a sweet granola a sugary or high fiber cereal? Placing the granola in the high fiber factor implies that it is more healthful than it really may be.

When we move from the relatively low-stakes world of labeling and grouping cereals into the high-stakes world of labeling and grouping people, the consequences become quite impactful. Factor analysis was used over 100 years ago by Charles Spearman to “objectively determine” intelligence. Not surprisingly, the people who Spearman found to be of high general intelligence looked like him, were of his culture, and thought like him.

When we think about people’s cognitive processes—people’s means of making sense of and responding to the world—there are infinite attributes that we could consider. Neuroscience utilizes the terms neurotypicality and neurodiversity to make a binary distinction between people whose thinking is categorized as typical or atypical. Really, neurological functioning is a complex factor analysis that we cannot comprehend, visualize, or fully measure. There is no such thing as neurotypical—we are all neurodivergent. However, societies are constructed in ways that makes it easier for people who fit well to certain factors to get their needs met than for others.

As I can’t imagine an infinitely-dimensioned web, I resort to thinking of a neurological universe—the universe is also a little beyond my grasp (infinite and expanding!?!), but at least I’ve seen visual representations. With this metaphor, some solar systems (and the people who fit those stars well) are at the center of the universe, and some people are on planets circling distant suns. When I hit my head that September evening, I moved to a completely different part of the neuro-universe. All the planets and constellations are foreign to me. There are beauties in these new heavens—but, I so miss my old home, the earth and sky that I knew.

One thing I see from my new peripheral location in the neuro-universe is each person’s uniqueness. I am flooded with the importance of and appreciation for each person. Our special cognitive abilities—shaped by and shaping our experiences, backgrounds, and legacies—leads to a unique individual, a unique mind, unique capabilities and contributions. While it can be expedient to label and group, this simplification of neurodiversity now appears to me to lose more than is gained. Maybe it is easier, out here on the periphery, to notice each person’s unique cognitive beauty, without all the light and noise from the center of the universe.

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