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SocietyDecember 17, 2022

Learning to understand the strangeness of my brain

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I struggle to process verbal instructions, I can’t see objects right under my nose. But I’ve realised that many of us are cognitively atypical – and maybe it’s something to work with rather than hide or ignore. 

“We have this new staffer in my office,” said a friend. “When she joined she explained to us that she’s neurodiverse so she has trouble processing verbal instructions.”

 The conversation moved on but I’ve thought a lot about my friend’s colleague, because I also struggle to understand some forms of verbal instruction. I can obey simple commands, like fetching objects from a nearby room. But I can’t process spoken information that requires me to visualise a physical space or remember sequential steps. I can follow a recipe in a cookbook, or instructions in a paper or technical manual. But if you tell me the same information in person or over the phone my mind goes blank. I feel a flight reaction. I nod or agree, to convey the impression that I understand what you’re saying but I don’t and my goal is just to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. 

It never occurred to me that this was a problem I could tell people about or adapt to, and I put this down to vanity. I like to think of myself as intelligent. But being overwhelmed with panic whenever anyone tries to explain something to me undermines this flattering self-image so I pretend it doesn’t happen. But would a truly smart person behave this way? Wouldn’t it be more intelligent to be like my friend’s co-worker? To acknowledge my flaws and work around them? 

Shortly after this conversation I took one of those “Are you autistic?” tests online. I’ve done them before and always get the same result: slightly, in some ways, but mostly no. Autism is a cluster of signs and symptoms most of which I don’t experience or present. I don’t have trouble interpreting people’s emotions or social cues. I don’t speak with a flattened affect. I don’t have anxiety about routines or obsess over patterns or categories, or think too literally, or have any other language or communication problems. 

I’m not really normal though. There’s the verbal instruction thing and I also have issues with object placement. If something in the kitchen has been moved from its usual spot I have to call my wife to find it, because it’s almost impossible for me to see it even if it’s right in front of me. I am enraged by loud, repetitive noises (the psychological literature calls this hyperarousal. Do not tell your coworkers you are hyperaroused.) I struggle to concentrate on many tasks but get obsessed with subjects I find interesting. I can be socially awkward: while I can make light conversation about topics I don’t care about (which is almost everything) I find it exhausting. I struggle to recognise people’s faces outside of the context I know them in. I am bad at loading the dishwasher. 

1950s housewife unloading dishwasher
Fact: many households contain a person who likes to restack the dishwasher after others’ inferior efforts. (Photo: Getty Images)

I don’t like the idea of self-identifying as neurodivergent or autistic or on the autism spectrum. Partly because the tests tell me I’m not, partly because the term seems to describe people whose lives are more challenging than mine. But I’m also sceptical of the binary — neurotypical or neurodivergent — even if it gestures at a spectrum. Because humans seem to have a variety of cognitive types. Just as very few people are the average age, height and weight all at once, many of us seem to be atypical across one distribution or another. 

There’s the introversion/extroversion spectrum, of course. But let’s run through a few of the more exotic examples. When you’re reading this essay do you hear the words in your head? If so, is it in your own voice or how you imagine my voice to sound? Can you hear multiple voices? Can they talk to each other? Do they seem to speak inside your mind, or come from your chest, or outside your body? Is it constant or occasional? Most of us spend a large proportion of our lives engaged in self-talk but we experience it differently and there’s a small percentage of the population who don’t “hear” it at all. They think non-verbally (yet, intriguingly, have no problems translating their thoughts into speech). 

I hear my own voice. All. The. Time. Most of my writing process consists of walking around and muttering to myself, figuring out the ideas and the sentences; different representations of my mind bickering about whether what they’re saying is true, or make sense. And when I have anxiety or depression it often presents as a malfunction of my internal monologue. The inner voice loops, obsessively, the same furious or despairing thoughts over and over. When I meditate the hardest part is silencing this voice. If I can make myself shut up for just a few goddamn minutes I experience a very pleasant quietness, and for hours afterwards my thoughts have a serene clarity to them. I sometimes think of a line in a Yeats poem: 

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence

Can you picture Yeats’ fly in your head? Some of us can, some of us can’t. In 1880 Francis Galton (best known as the founder of eugenics) published a paper on the statistics of mental imagery. He asked a variety of people to imagine an object: “suppose it is your breakfast-table as you sat down to it this morning”. He then asked: 

“Is the image dim or fairly clear? Is its brightness comparable to that of the actual scene?

“Are all the objects pretty well defined at the same time, or is the place of sharpest definition at any one moment more contracted than it is in a real scene?

“Are the colours of the china, of the toast, bread-crust, mustard, meat, parsley, or whatever may have been on the table, quite distinct and natural?”

Galton put these questions to a number of his fellow scientists and found that some of them did not experience mental imagery. And they assumed this was normal. When they heard other people refer to their “mind’s eye” or similar term they thought it was just a figure of speech — surely no one literally saw things inside their head? He wrote: 

“They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing.”

My home doesn’t have a breakfast table stocked with china and mustard and parsley, but we have a dining table. I can picture it now but it’s rather vague. I imagine the placemats as confusing blurs: I can’t see what colour they are. When I think about the other items on it — junk mail, bills, headphones, keys — I conceive of them as words rather than visible objects. 

Galton’s work in this area was largely ignored for over a hundred years but a 2016 paper found that around 4% of the population seems to experience aphantasia, mind blindness, while 10-15% experience hyperphantasia: extremely vivid mental imagery. The rest are somewhere in between. Hyperphantasia is associated with mood disorders and synesthesia, the latter being a term coined by Galton to describe yet another perceptual phenomenon: the experience of one sense merging and mixing with another. They hear a sound and see a colour; or think of a word and perceive a shape. And, as with Galton’s previous subjects, they didn’t know this was an unusual condition. Surely everyone thought like them? 

Vladimir Nabakov knew that very few people thought like him. In Speak Memory he described his grapheme colour synesthesia which associated colours, textures and images with different letters of the alphabet: 

The long “a” of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French “a” evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard “g” (vulcanized rubber) and “r” (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal “n”, noodle-limp “l”, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of an “o” take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French “on” which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass.

Best known for his dodgy yet lauded novel Lolita, writer Vladimir Nabokov saw letters as colours. (Photo: Getty images)

And here’s celebrated physicist Richard Feynman, quoted in the biography by James Gleick, also aware of his own cognitive difference:  

When I see equations, I see the letters in colors. I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.

There seems to be a link between synesthesia and autism and there’s a debate in some online communities over whether Feynman was autistic. On the one hand he was social and outgoing, on the other, he was not conspicuously normal:   

A Cornell dormitory neighbour opened Feynman’s door to find him rolling about on the floor as he worked on a problem. When he was not rolling about, he was murmuring rhythmically or drumming with his fingertips.

For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with a series of books by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. The Neapolitan Quartet describes the lives of two women who were childhood friends. One of the central themes is cognitive diversity. Ferrante’s characters do not think alike. It’s not that they have different values or beliefs; they’re different in the more profound, still rather mysterious sense that I’m trying to write about here. Both characters are intelligent, but the narrator Elena is smart in an academic sense. She’s good at school; she wants to please her teachers. She’s highly competitive. She’s adept at absorbing information and repeating it accurately. Even when she becomes a novelist her writing consists of imitating her friends. 

The other character, Lila, is not imitative and she does not aim to please anyone. Her brilliance takes the form of a protean creativity, an endless inventiveness; she can master any skill, every artform. But she’s often a horrible person, icy and cruel: some critics read her as the book’s villain. And she suffers from an acute mental illness. One of its manifestations is a terrifying form of synesthesia. Here’s how she describes the stars above a beach resort near Naples: 

Do you remember how the night sky of Ischia horrified me? You all said how beautiful it is, but I couldn’t. I smelled an odor of rotten eggs, eggs with a greenish-yellow yolk inside the white and inside the shell, a hard-boiled egg cracked open. I had in my mouth poisoned egg stars, their light had a white, gummy consistency.

In the third book she suffers a breakdown and tries to communicate her experience of the world as a place of dissolving boundaries: 

She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that.

Lila is not diagnosable, at least not for Ferrante. She never overcomes her problems; she doesn’t learn to be normal. Her mystery is never solved. Her personality, creativity, madness and neurodivergence are innate and connected, “a merging and mixing”. The best she could hope for would be to medicate some of her symptoms. Her ambition was to become a successful writer but it was never achieved: she had no access to the advanced degrees that became prerequisites for entry into the literary world in the latter half of the 20th century. So, like a lot of weird, brilliant people during that era she became a software engineer. 

Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco play Lila and Elena in the Italian TV adaptation of Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend. (Photo: Getty Images)

In March of 2015 the tech oligarch Peter Thiel was interviewed by the economist Tyler Cowen. One of the subjects they covered was innovation and Thiel observed: 

“In Silicon Valley, I point out that many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialization gene.”

This quote needs a little context. Thiel self-identifies as having Asperger’s. Both Thiel and Cowen are interested in a French-American philosopher called Rene Girard. Girard’s grand theme is desire. He asks: why do we want the things that we want? Obviously some of our appetites are biological but humans have many higher order desires. Why do we dress the way we do? Why are we attracted to the people we’re attracted to? Where do our ambitions and values and aesthetics come from? 

Girard’s answer is that these are memetic, imitative. Humans are a social species and a shortcut for doing well in nearly any society is to identify high-status people and imitate their behaviour. He argues that this predisposes us towards conformity and competition: we’re all copying the same people and chasing the same desires so we all become memetic rivals trapped in zero-sum conflicts. 

And Thiel gives Girard’s theory an interesting spin. If our species is so imitative, where does creativity and innovation come from? He thinks it comes from people who are neurodivergent, who lack the “imitation and socialisation gene”. The autism activist Temple Grandin makes a similar argument: 

“What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socialising and not getting anything done.”

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel in an appearance on Fox News. (Photo: Getty Images)

Every out-group likes to present itself as the unacknowledged heroes of the world, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the idea. Later in the Cowen-Thiel interview, Thiel elaborated:

“I worry that the conformity problem is actually more acute than it was in the ’50s or ’60s, so that the category of the eccentric scientist, or even the eccentric professor, is a species that is steadily going extinct because there is less space for that in our research universities than there used to be.”

There’s a cyclicality to innovation and creativity in Thiel’s view of the world. Weird neurodivergent people innovate in some neglected field, that field becomes high status, everyone else floods in and imitates the innovators, the weird and creative get crowded out and innovation tails off. Thiel suggests that this has happened in science and much of the tech sector and this helps account for “the great stagnation”: the theory that there has been a comparative decline in the rate of scientific discovery and technological innovation over the last 50 years. 

Towards the end of Ferrante’s quartet her narrator, the novelist, ridicules the educated class: 

There are very few true intellectuals. The mass of the educated spend their lives commenting lazily on the ideas of others. They engage their best energies in sadistic practices against every possible rival.

So Girardian. I bristle a little every time I read this. My essays are mostly comments on the ideas of others. But we can’t all be Ferrantes or Nabakovs, so I want to end with a defence of imitation. There’s a famous story in Primo Levi’s literary memoir The Periodic Table, much beloved in the tech sector. It describes Levi’s experience working as an industrial chemist in a varnish factory. Every day the workers threw a raw onion into the mixture. No one knew why: they were just following the recipe. So Levi decided to find out, and he discovered that the onion predated industrial thermometers. In the early days of the factory they threw it in to test the temperature of the varnish. And even though they now had thermometers everyone still followed the recipe. It’s a flattering story for technology and creative workers in general: everyone else is just pointlessly imitating one another until a (weird, shy) thinker like Levi questions the status quo. 

In The Secret of Our Success, the anthropologist Joe Heinrich describes the way pre-modern societies prepared cassava. This is a root vegetable; it’s one of the most popular staple foods in the developing world. But if you don’t prepare it correctly it slowly poisons you. And preparation consists of “a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten.”

If you were a disruptive, creative thinker you’d question this laborious process, little of which made rational sense because: “They would have rarely, if ever, seen anyone get cyanide poisoning, because the techniques work. And even if the processing was ineffective, such that cases of goiter (swollen necks) or neurological problems were common, it would still be hard to recognize the link between these chronic health issues and eating cassava.”

Consider what might result if a self-reliant Tukanoan mother decided to drop any seemingly unnecessary steps from the processing of her bitter cassava. She might critically examine the procedure handed down to her from earlier generations and conclude that the goal of the procedure is to remove the bitter taste. 

She might then experiment with alternative procedures by dropping some of the more labour-intensive or time-consuming steps. She’d find that with a shorter and much less labour-intensive process, she could remove the bitter taste. Adopting this easier protocol, she would have more time for other activities, like caring for her children. Of course, years or decades later her family would begin to develop the symptoms of chronic cyanide poisoning.

Heinrich’s book is about the technological sophistication of pre-modern, hunter-gatherer societies. It goes into hunting techniques, food preparation, companion planting, weapon and tool creation – all of these tasks are more complicated than almost any job in a modern economy with high specialisation of labour. As the cassava story shows, you don’t get these elaborate sequential processes passed on via bold disruptive thinkers. You get them through imitation: techniques and customs built up through trial and error. Creativity probably plays an early role here but the key part is that the knowledge is passed on with high fidelity to subsequent generations. Levi’s onion is an aberration in this model: a quirk of a society with unusually rapid technological development. But over time cultural evolution is almost always smarter than the smartest and most creative individuals. So imitation, Heinrich argues, is the secret of human success. The most valuable form of intelligence. 

I am not a patient observer of complex things. I can’t sit still for long, I’m stressed out by rooms filled with people. I can pay sustained attention to a speaker or lecturer for a maximum of 20 minutes before I zone out, remembering nothing. My cassava would be poisonous, and school was not a great experience for me. When I was a teenager I thought I was a genius of world-historical magnitude so it made sense that an institution designed for all the other morons and nobodies couldn’t encompass my brilliance. I spent most of my high school years sitting at the back of the class reading science fiction novels and modernist poetry. I tried to teach myself Attic Greek. None of this set me up well for adult life, although life has mostly worked out well anyway. 

But here is what frustrates me. A few years ago I signed up for a year-long course; much of which involved sitting in a room engaging in group discussion and listening to people read aloud. And I was excited about this! It was only when I was actually sitting in the room that I realised I’d trapped myself in a situation I found unbearable. And I’d committed to it for a year! There was no way out! How, I brooded, could I have reached my mid-forties and still be so self-destructively un-self aware? Life had taught me that I wasn’t a genius and now I worried that I was actually quite stupid. 

I prefer to tell myself that Francis Galton was onto something back in the 1880s when he talked about “deficiencies of which the subjects were unaware”. His subjects weren’t stupid; they just lacked the faculty for visual imagination and didn’t know it. Atypical cognition is a profound form of difference but it’s often invisible. No one makes you sit at the back of the bus because you have aphantasia or synesthesia or whatever bizarre form of introversion I’ve blundered through life with. It can be easy to forget you’re weird. 

I’m not pretending that any of this makes me a member of an oppressed class, and I’m not lobbying for a new batch of identity categories. I agree with Ferrante that these differences present as a complex mess rather than discrete conditions. The boundaries dissolve. My point, if I have one, is that there’s a form of self-understanding available to us that no one tells you about because it still isn’t well understood. A form of insight related to creativity and mental health, character and education, work and happiness, and probably other things which I am oblivious to. Our species thinks divergently; we experience different versions of the world not merely at the cultural or social levels but biologically, and this constrains our lives, or at least my life but maybe yours as well. And I wish I’d realised all of this a lot sooner. 

Keep going!