The theory of central coherence: what it consists of and how it explains autism

At every moment, we are receiving an unimaginable amount of stimuli from the environment that our brain is responsible for processing.

But how do you manage this enormous amount of information, integrating it almost instantly? Part of that merit has it central coherence theory, Concept that we will explore in depth in the following lines.

    What is the theory of central coherence?

    To talk about the theory of central coherence, we have to go back to 1989, when psychologist Uta Frith of University College London invented this concept. According to Frith, our brain is always looking for a line of coherence in all the stimuli it picks up from the environment through all the senses, to be able to integrate and regroup them quickly.

    In this way, all the information that bombards us every moment is shaped, create sets of stimuli that have been accessed through different pathways (sight, hearing, etc.) and that are automatically grouped to establish the consistency we need to be able to understand the reality that is unfolding around us and that we perceive at all times.

    Imagine for a moment how chaotic it would be if we couldn’t interpret that what our sight, hearing, or touch perceives, at any given moment, is part of the same stimulus, and we couldn’t make a connection. all those informations. It happens in some people, in people with autism spectrum disorders, and that’s what Dr. Frith focused her research on. We will see in the next point.

    Weak central coherence theory

    What Uta Frith discovered is that people with autism find it difficult to apply this mechanism, So that for these individuals would apply what she called the theory of weak central coherence.

    In other words, some of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders could be explained because these people would not have the capacity (or would be reduced) to automatically associate perceived stimuli to adapt them to common patterns.

    This phenomenon fact that people with autism often tend to focus their attention on very specific details of reality and not on the whole of the elements that compose it. This has the downsides we’ve seen before, but in turn it can have a surprising effect and it’s an unthinkable ability for other people to deal with specific details.

    We remember the famous scene from the movie Rain Man, In which the character played by Dustin Hoffman, a man with some type of autism, sees the waitress he is in drops a box of chopsticks, scattering them all on the floor. He automatically knows that there are two hundred and forty-six, which, added to the four that did not come down, complete the two hundred and fifty that was there originally.

    In this example, we can clearly see an example of the weak central coherence theory, which instead of grouping stimuli into sets allows the sufferer to focus on very specific details, like the number of palettes that ‘it contains. ground, in this case. A person who does not suffer from this pathology, unless they have a highly developed ability, should have counted the chopsticks one by one to know the exact quantity that was in them.

      Concept review

      However, subsequent studies by psychologist Francesca Happé and Uta Frith herself in 2006 changed the original view of the concept of weak central coherence theory, stated 15 years earlier. This review resulted in three important changes, which are reflected in three new assumptions in this regard. Let’s go through each one to find out what these proposed changes are all about.

      1. Superiority in local treatment

      The first of the hypotheses refers to an alleged superiority that would be given in local processing (those of specific details) as opposed to central processing. That is to say the vision would change the deficit that was believed to exist in the general treatment, replacing it with a superiority in the processes of local elementsSo the perspective of the original question would change.

      2. Cognitive bias

      On the other hand, the new revision of the central coherence theory, in this weak case, asserts that people with autism are not incapable of performing comprehensive processing of reality, but that they have a cognitive bias which makes them predisposed to use local treatment more frequently. and therefore they have to focus on very specific details and not on sets of stimuli.

      3. Social difficulties

      The third shift in perspective has to do with the difficulties in social interactions that subjects with ASD often experience, and is that the early view of the weak central coherence theory put this as the cause of these interacting problems. with peers, while the new perspective what he does is present this behavior as another feature of cognition in people with autism.

      other visions

      But this is not the only revision that the theory of central coherence has undergone. In 2010, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, who specializes in the study of autism, updated the vision of this concept by adapting it to new research. In this sense, the last modification was relate the theory of central coherence to that of connectivity.

      What this theory refers to is that people with autism spectrum disorders would have what is called short-range hyperconnectivity rather than long-range. What does it mean? In which these people they have more neural networks dedicated to local and nearby connections.

      Another concept he introduced is that of sensory hypersensitivity, which would explain why some people with autism have such a developed ability to visually find and analyze certain stimuli. Here would perfectly match the example of Rain Man and the wands that we saw at the beginning. Having this sensory hypersensitivity and abundance of neural connections, the individual can, at a glance, tell the exact number of chopsticks that there are.

      Baron-Cohen’s is not the only point of view different from Frith’s. We would also find, for example, the work of Peter Hobson, who brings a different point of view on the theory of central coherence in terms of the social relational capacities of people suffering from autism spectrum disorders.

      According to Hobson, as a rule, all people are born with the capacity to be able to interact with our fellow human beings in an emotional way. However, people with autism would be born without this ability, which would cause them the difficulties of relating that we had already mentioned before. What would fail is an action-reaction process in which all human-like affective interactions are simplified..

      By not having this mechanism, it would start a difficult chain for the subject, child, to correctly recognize the emotions and intentions of the neighbor, which would make him not have the vital training to have appropriate social skills from an early age. age. adults that allow them to communicate fluently with other people. It should be clear that these claims are part of Hobson’s theory, and there are other views that differ from it.

      in conclusion

      We have already explored the origins of the theory of central coherence, especially the so-called weak, as well as its various revisions and other theories related to and even confronted with it.

      The main thing is that this theory it allows us to understand in more detail some of the behavioral characteristics of people with autism, Which is extremely useful for anyone who works or lives with people belonging to this group.

      however, it is a constantly evolving field, new articles are constantly published on the autism spectrum disorders mentioned in this theory and others, so we need to stay up to date with studies that are carried out every year to always be up to date with the most contrasting ideas and which best explain processes as delicate and as important as those we have seen throughout this article.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Baron-Cohen, S., Chaparro, S. (2010). Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Publishing Alliance.
      • Frith, U. (1989). A new look at language and communication in autism. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders.
      • Happé, F., Frith, U. (2006). The Weak Coherence Account: A Detail-Focused Cognitive Style of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
      • López, B., Leekam, Sr. (2007). Central Theory of Coherence: A Review of Theoretical Assumptions. Childhood and learning. Taylor and Francis.

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