Chia Pet Neuroscience

So a few days ago, my friend Julia sent me a link to an article on Disability Scoop titled “Miniature Brains Reveal An Outsized Secret About Autism.” Because Julia knows my tastes in science. Always a quality trait in a friend. The only other thing in her message, besides the link, was: “Enjoy.”

In that spirit, I decided to fucking enjoy myself. Please read the article itself (it’s relatively brief) before reading my comments, as they won’t make much sense without context. That said, once you’ve read the article, my comments were written in response to things in the order that they appear in said article. And I have done my best to indicate sarcasm where it occurs, especially since oftentimes I’m being sarcastic about science that I don’t expect every reader to already know. That said, please enjoy your lovely selves.


  • When you’re looking for the origins of autism, it’s only natural to assume that you might be able to find said origins by growing miniature neuronal Chia Pets in your lab. Like, duh! Brains are just like any other organ; they don’t need to be part of an organism, inside some weird “body” thing, in order to perform their basic functional and developmental roles! That would be silly, and super inconvenient for scientists who like petri dishes full of cell growth media more than they like the actual people they’re supposedly researching. [this whole bullet point is sarcasm!]
  • “…[T]o rewind the clock to the brain’s earliest days of development.” I’m so glad someone’s finally focusing on those who are most impacted by teh autismz: autistic embryos. [also sarcasm]
    • Oh, wait. Sorry. I keep forgetting these “brains” were never attached to actual bodies, embryonic or otherwise…
    • Which means they like, never received, processed, or stored any sensory input ever?
    • Sorry, but I don’t think you get to pat yourself on the back for peering into the depths of early human embryonic development when your research included a total of zero embryos developing within zero uterus-type gestational environments.
    • TL;DR
      • A. There is no such thing as an autistic embryo/fetus, in case that wasn’t clear before, and
      • B. I’m gonna keep calling those model brain things “miniature neuronal Chia Pets” until someone manages to come up with a more accurate description of them.
    • fucking demons sneakily replacing all ur normate babies with horned autisms! [sarasm]
  • “Organoids”
    • *Emma stares into the camera like she’s on The Office*
  • Clusters. Of. Embryonic. Brain. Cells. Smaller. Than. One-Tenth. Of. An. Inch. Across.
  • “[T]he autistic brain” ranks pretty high on my list of phrases that drive me utterly bananas.
    • We are not a Borg collective, nor are we some kind of super ineffectual clone army.
    • And the pedant in me can’t help but also point out that, actually, even drones in a/the Borg collective and “identical” clone soldiers wouldn’t all exhibit the exact same brain structures! They all would have had different experiences and/or been exposed to different environmental variables!
    • Were literally any of these freaking neuroscientists actually listening during the lecture(s) explaining the “Fire together, wire together!” principle?! (Jesus Christ Superstar, I swear. Neuroscientists these days, you know?)
  • They believe their results indicate that The Autistic Brain “overproduces the brain cells that act to quiet the cacophony of neural activity in the brain.” Science fail. Science fail. Alert, alert, science fail.
    • Please stop reducing the role of GABAergic and/or inhibitory neurons to just “the things that make ur brain quiet! :D” Please. Stop. That is not how. Fucking brains work.
    • You get some extra fail for having come to a conclusion about neuronal activity (“too many quiet-making cell things!”) in autistic brains that makes basically zero behavioral/phenomenological sense.
    • Oh, plus you get EXTRA extra fail for ignoring the fact that a huge number of the most common comorbid diagnoses among autistic people are known to involve atypical GABA/glutamate levels that are the literal inverse of the GABA/glutamate imbalances your article describes. Epilepsy? Schizophrenia spectrum? ADHD? Yup. Yup. Yup. Oh, just go home.
  • “[A]n imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory neurons.”
    • Wowzers, what a conclusive, specific, detailed description of neurological difference [sarcasm]. If you want to read me complain more about this particularly egregious oversimplification of neurological excitation/inhibition, see my two posts about “Intense World Theory.”
  • I can’t believe nobody had ever thought of using miniature neuronal Chia Pets as model organisms before! [sarcasm]
    • I’m especially impressed with the way you boldly extrapolate your findings about Chia Pet GABAergic neuronal proliferation and apply them to the autistic brains of children and adults as well. [sarcasm]
    • Your experimental model clearly provides data that is generalizable to all stages of neurological development [more sarcasm], since GABA/glutamate signaling is:
      • 1. Definitely not shaped by pre- or postnatal environmental factors at all! [100% sarcasm]; and
      • 2. Also definitely not affected by any of the systemic neurochemical/hormonal changes that occur during human childhood and adolescence [prime, high-quality sarcasm].
  • Another hint on reading BrAiNsCiEnCeZ critically: If a neuroscientist (or geneticist, for that matter) ever claims to have “fixed” a complex neurological/cognitive Thing just by suppressing “a single gene,” there’s a really good chance that you don’t need to bother listening to anything else they say on the matter. See also: An article author/science person you’ve encountered sincerely likes behavioral genetics? DEAL. BREAKER.
  • I’m skipping over the next few positivist, pathologizing, vaguely eugenicist mini-crap-paragraphs because they’re not worth my time. Plus, I know there are a few TRUE GEMS waiting for me near the end of this…
  • Cool, cool, getting pluripotential cells from skin cells, big whoop, I’m bored.
  • Your. Autistic. Sample. Size. Is. Four.
    • yoursamplesizeis*F*O*U*R*
    • 4
    • four. BOYS.
    • They describe macrocephaly as “a unique characteristic typical of those with severe autism.” And, you know, determining which characteristics really define a high-prevalence, behavioral diagnostic category can be really tough. But you can’t go wrong as long as you focus on a trait that is consistent, diagnostically-relevant, and rare/nonexistent in the NT population–like “Having A Weirdly Big Head,” for example [sarcasm].
    • “Having A Weirdly Big Head” is a great choice [sarcasmz] because:
      • 1. Everyone who’s really autistic has a weird big head [whoa sarcasm];
      • 2. Having a weird big head qualifies you for an autism diagnosis [very sarcasm]; and
      • 3. While some neurotypical people might have heads that are objectively “big,” several research studies have confirmed that only autistic people exhibit weird big-headedness [peak sarcasm].
  • “To create a batch of typically-developing organoids, they used skin cells from the autism patients’ unaffected fathers.”
    • I actually laughed out loud when I first read this, and it will be funny to me forever. Forever funny. Forever.
    • “Do you need obviously, 100% NT control subjects for your autism research? Just recruit the parents of autistic children! They are all totes guaranteed to be super socially normal people who are not at all autistic.” [sarcasm]
  • Kudos to the researcher for clarifying that like, the cells they use aren’t completely pluripotent, and therefore they can’t actually produce all the tissues and structures that an actual brain would be made of…But like, I’m still waiting for the part where someone acknowledges that you can’t build, or “grow,” a decontextualized, disembodied brain, period.
  • I’m going to ask these people once, and only once: Slowly back away from the insulting computer/programming metaphors. Slowly. Back. Away.
  • “‘Sometimes you don’t see these things unless you look for them,’ she said in the interview.”
    • There are so many jokes I could make here. But I am so tired.
    • Though I imagine that it’s true: very few people would have looked at the state of autism science today and thought to themselves, “You know what this field needs? Miniature Chia Pet Models Of Embryonic Neuronal Growth Built On Three-Dimensional Scaffolding!”

Yeah, I’m just done here. That is all. I’m done with this thing. I have enjoyed myself, and now I am done.

(One last aside: Obviously, I have nothing against like, these kinds of research–those that either grow, or simulate the growth of, organs using three-dimensional scaffolding and pluripotent cells–in general. What I have a problem with is when researchers feel completely comfortable using this kind of research to make claims about entire groups of people diagnosed with one of the most diverse and socially-inflected “behavioral disorders” in existence.)


The “Reading The Mind In The Eyes” Test: A Collaborative Critique

Once upon a time, there was this damn test invented by the Baron-Cohen Lab meant to measure an individual’s ability to read emotions from facial expressions. It was kind of a silly explosion. It’s real-life name is the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test,” and as of right now, GoogleScholar says that it has been cited over 2100 times since the “revised” edition was published in 2001. I have always been somewhat skeptical of this test, which 1. Contains only photos of white people, and 2. Includes only photos of young, heavily made-up, conventionally attractive women, whose expressions (according to the test) are “flirtatious,” “fantasizing,” “desire,” or “interested.” In case you aren’t familiar with the work of the Baron-Cohen Lab, they’re responsible for everyone’s favorite “Extreme Male Brain Theory” of autism.

So Dani and I thought it would be fun to get a few snarky/funny autistic women together to…give our more candid assessments of images from this test. The multiple-choice format of the original really cramps one’s style, you know? So I picked out a couple images from the original 36-image test (way. too. long.) and we asked a few friends to look through and give their best guesses as to the “emotional state” shown in each photo. Dani and I contributed as well, and then I went through and added the “correct” answer for each photo, according to the actual test.

This finished product is brought to you by me, Dani Alexis, Kassiane (Neurodivergent K), Melanie Yergeau, and Ibby Grace. And serious intellectual work. Very, very serious things. Seriousness. Critique things. ENJOY.

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Emma: The oldest and saddest Keebler Elf in all the land.

Melanie: Is this Frasier’s dad?

Dani: If it is Frasier’s dad, why does he look so sad?  OMG, DID SOMETHING HAPPEN TO EDDIE?!

Actual Test Answer: “Upset”

Dani: I knew it.  Eddie’s dead.  I’m so over this show.

Ibby: “How ‘bout this time: Did I do it? Did I raise one eyebrow by itself?”

Kassiane: Sad puppies envy this guy’s eyebrow game though. look at that.

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Dani: “I asked for Audrey Hepburn eyebrows.  Can you believe this is what they gave me?”

Kassiane: “Not actually interested in you, but if I laugh I may cry & this eyeliner in the eyes is the actual worst. So I’m just gunna keep staring & hope you go away.”

Emma: I believe this is a picture of that subtle, female emotion called “mascara.”

Melanie: “If I blink, I might die.”

Actual Test Answer: “Desire”

Ibby: “We all know you’re the one who farted, so you can quit pretending to sniff the room now.”

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Dani:  This is the “human eyes” equivalent of that life-essence-sucking machine in The Dark Crystal.

Emma: “I am a man with a dark side…No, literally, one side of my face is dark.”

(Emma: WAIT DANI I JUST REALIZED WHAT FIZZGIG [one of dani’s cats] IS NAMED AFTER. wow it has been a long time since i saw that movie.)


Melanie: This isn’t a face. It’s a topographical representation of the Canadian Cascades, with eyeballs superimposed over the mountain terrain.

Actual Test Answer: “Insisting.” (Emma: EWWWW)

Ibby: “Where did I put my contact solution?”

Kassiane: Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.

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Dani:  “This party is never. going. to. end.”

Emma: “Oh, yes. I am absolutely making sex eyes at you right now. These are the eyes I make about sex. With you. In fact, I’m thinking about having sex with you so intensely that I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes closed completely, like, really soon. Just so you know.”

(Dani: “Also, I cannot believe she married him.  Seriously.  What.”)

Melanie: “Guess what letter of the alphabet my name starts with.”

Ibby: “Do. Not. Sneeze. Deep breath. Don’t sneeze.”

Kassiane: No dude, I am not interested in you. How bored do I need to look for you to go away? Please just get the hint and go away without getting violent or pissy thank you?

Actual Test Answer: “Fantasizing.”

(Dani: The fact that Baron-Cohen keeps confusing “the glazed look women get when they want mansplainers to go away” with “female sexual interest or desire” says more than I ever wanted to know about Baron-Cohen’s dating life.)

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Melanie: “I don’t always stare longingly into the distance, but when I do, it’s for manly things, like science, or hamburgers with doughnuts for buns.”

Dani: “You remind me of my dog I had when I was a boy.  He was a good dog.”

Emma: “My name is Captain Cowboy Marlboro-Man Hemingway, but most people just call me ‘Dick.’”

Ibby: [Crunch] “Goldurnit. That’s the third pair of sunglasses I sat on this month.”

Actual Test Answer: “Despondent.”

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Dani: If my cat were a human, this would be his expression whenever he saw us roll out the vacuum cleaner.

Emma: The Shifty Smize: Trademark Facial Expression of the Bush Administration.

Kassiane: “oh no, someone has noticed office supplies going missing. do they suspect me? no no no play it cool, play it cool”

Melanie: “My name is Eyes McEyebrows, and I approve of this message.”

Ibby: “Are you going to eat that last slice?”

Actual Test Answer: “Cautious.”

(Emma: Dani, your cat-reading game remains hella strong.)

(Dani: Husband calls me the Cat Whisperer.  I’m actually just fluent in Cat.  Cats don’t give a shit about your social niceties.  Cats say what they fucking mean.  PS: We call the vacuum cleaner “The Dread Sword Kittensbane.”)

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Melanie: “My expression is so important that the background behind my head has been photoshopped out of this image. Spoiler alert: There were unicorns involved, and we all know that unicorns disproportionately impact observer bias.”

Dani: “Were THESE the Audrey Hepburn eyebrows you were looking for?  Yeah.  Yeah, they were.”

Emma: “I was looking at something else, and so I have oriented my body so that it is facing the thing I was looking at, but now I am glancing at you out of the corner of my eye, so that I don’t have to actually turn and face you to determine what random fucking thing you’re doing.”

Ibby: “Tell me one more time you want to ‘get you some of that’.”

Kassiane: “I am Bored White Woman Number 3.”

Actual Test Answer: “Interested.”

(Dani: But when *I* give people this side-eye (in order to see them better, ‘cause for some reason my visual processing doesn’t work straight-on), I’m “shifty” or “have an attitude.”  Clearly I need to up my “smoky eyeliner” game if I want to indicate “interest.”)

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Melanie: “It was I who ate the rest of the cereal. I, the one who cannot be bothered to say me.”




Ibby: “No really. It was my great great great grandfather modelling on the dollar bill. Here look: I’m the spitting image.”

Actual Test Answer: “Serious.”

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Melanie: My gaze suggests you should click this link.

Emma: I see your link, and raise you another link.

Dani:  Seriously, though, I think the only reason I’m reading this as “desire” is because I myself yearn for such mad eyeliner skillz.
Kassiane: I swear this is the same woman as a few pictures up.

Ibby: “Good Seasons Italian Dressing is…delicioso!”

Actual Test Answer: “Flirtatious.”

Just, you know, so we’re all clear on the details: The full, 36-image version of this test has been cited over 100 times a year since 2001, contains entirely white faces, and features multiple other female photos that the test asserts show expressions like “desire,” “interested,” “flirtatious,” and so forth. 




This is a fizzgig.

This is the Fizzgig.