Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Divergent Genius Who Finds Without Seeking: Simon Baron-Cohen's The Pattern Seekers

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Pattern Seekers.

"Philosophers have long posited self-knowledge as a foundational necessity for a moral life. But what if that goal is not merely illusive but impossible? The very notion of a self may be a comforting fiction, a tale we tell to mitigate our fear of mutation, even dissolution. 'We are merely ashes,' Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, 'endowed with a soul, lacking any shape, not even that of water, which takes the shape of the glass containing it.'” – Nolan Kelly, Hyperallergic

Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent new book, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, is based on a shockingly simple premise. The reason we humans are unique among sentient beings and distinct from other creatures which lack (supposedly) language or intellect, is the prevalence in our consciousness of a single special trait: our ability to look for and discern, identify and widely co-distribute patterns. The most important pattern formation, for Baron-Cohen, is also the simplest one, what he calls the “if-and-then” pattern. This he considers the ability to surmise that if so and so might be true or possible, then such and such is the predictable result. This notion is so basic and elemental that it has the charm and beauty of being a revealed truth all on its own, especially since many such results are in fact inherently unpredictable.

His approach is concise and convincing: “As a psychologist and autism researcher, I have studied the human mind for thirty-five years. In this book I present a new theory of human invention. Here it is in a nutshell. Humans alone have a specific kind of engine in the brain. It’s one that seeks out if-and-then patterns, the minimum definition of a system. I call this engine the Systematizing Mechanism. It developed at a landmark moment in human evolution, between 70 and 100 thousand years ago, when the first humans began to make complex tools that no previous animal has ever been able to. This allowed humans to become the technological masters of our planet, eclipsing all other species.”

I can certainly concur with the well-known science author Steven Pinker, who characterized Baron-Cohen’s contribution to our attempts at understanding ourselves as one that “sheds light on one of humanity’s most distinctive traits, celebrates human cognitive diversity, and is rich with empathy and psychological insight.” Yet even more startling in its insight is the author’s notion that the genes for this unique human ability, the if-and-then impulse, overlap with the genes for autism. This observations is perhaps what prompted another astute observer of the autistic perspective, the author of Neurotribes, Steve Silberman, to claim for Baron-Cohen the accurate accolade that it is “ambitious and provocative, and goes beyond the usual discussion of ‘special gifts’ in autism to propose that diversity of human operating systems has accelerated the advancement of human civilization and culture in ways we can barely imagine.” This last kudo is totally in line with the gifted Temple Grandin’s seemingly wild claim that we would still be living in caves without the contribution to communities of those outsiders who thought differently and thus invented new ways of doing things.

Invention is an activity usually thought of as the creation of a new idea or thing which is subsequently contributed to our society at large supposedly for the benefit of the group or community. Invention is also, perhaps presumptuously, perceived as not only a distinctly human trait unknown to animals, but even a trait which distinguishes us from mere animals. This notion is flawed on many fronts, not the least of which is the obvious talent of birds and many other of our mammalian cousins to imagine, reason, construct, fabricate and utilize tools for any number of practical purposes. Crows, ravens, chimps and a host of other creatures manage to imagine heretofore unknown utilities all the time, but they do it quietly, without proudly awarding themselves Nobel Prizes.

But of the many forms of creative invention which human beings are capable of, what if the most extensive and elaborate might be the invention of an entirely independent world running parallel to the one we occupy, a new and different world which contains the invention of itself as a point of departure? Writers, whether poets, novelists, playwrights or philosophers, invent whole worlds every day, complete and intact domains to which they alone have access at first. If they are fortunate enough, that is, if circumstances are lucky enough for them to connect with the rest of us, then we all get to enter their invented worlds together. And if they are celebrated enough, we then award them Nobel Prizes for the great works of fiction, poetry or philosophy they shared with us.

But it often seems as if we are solely limited to recognizing the ideas or inventions that result in things we can use, or which appear to improve our practical lives, rather than the invention of an entirely independent world (one often fabricated by the multiple alter egos of an author such as Fernando Pessoa, for instance) which contains an entirely parallel reality that is not immediately obvious in its practical applications. And, in our haste to assume that an actual self or identity really exists, which can be bent to our willful purposes, we also reward those who sought out and detected some previously unknown pattern in our world at the expense of those who automatically found an existent pattern of their own able to dazzle us through its obvious originality.

Pessoa’s dazzling poetry and melancholy brilliance, especially in his use of about 137 heteronyms (his preferable word for pseudonyms) in the production of utterly original literature containing an entire parallel world or two, doesn’t, of course, require us to speculate on whether he was autistic or on the so-called “spectrum,” although he probably was. My reluctance to even use words like “autistic” and “spectrum” resides in my encounter with a remarkable recent book by Edith Sheffer on the previously little known personal beliefs of Doctor Hans (Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Austria) about which I wrote in an earlier edition of Critics At Large. Suffice it to say that Pessoa offers us the opportunity to speculate on whether the absence of a concrete and sustainable “self” and “identity,” rather than being a disability, is in actuality a discerning discovery of the way reality actually functions rather than the way we either imagine it or would like it to perform for us. 

left: Allen Lane/Penguin, UK; right: Basic Books, USA and Canada.

Some people clearly have a more pronounced ability to discern patterns, even though this ability is often coupled with what are perceived as other disabilities in the community at large. “When the Systematizing Mechanism evolved in the human brain 70,000 years ago,” Baron-Cohen proceeds, “instead of looking at an object, or an event or any information, as if there was nothing more that could be done with it, our minds started to look at it as a system, something governed by if-and-then patterns, the result of a cognitive revolution in the brain that led Homo Sapiens to diverge from all other animals and conquer the earth. And it all came down to the drive to seek out patterns.” Thankfully, Baron-Cohen never speculates about whether it was a good thing that humans “conquered” the earth, or whether other animals are of lesser value than us, leaving that as an implicit idea for the reader to ponder.

But he does usefully observe that often those people with superior pattern reading skills are also diverging dramatically in concurrent ones such as socializing or empathy. I’m gratified that Baron-Cohen’s approach is slightly less saccharine that Silberman’s well-intentioned concept of neurodiversity, something we obviously need in order to be living an inclusive life, and is somewhat more focused on neurodivergence, which at first might appear threatening as an often anti-social attitude but which later results in the light bulb or the radio. The Pattern Seekers is a grand overview of our epic unfolding as a mutual civilization with multiple variants, and although it is the same book, I tend to lean towards the British edition, both its cover image and title designation, over the American version of the same worthy text. By which I mean my preference is for The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention (with its paper-clip graphic bending into the shape of an airplane) over The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention, A 70,000 Year History (with its clever colour spectrum of sharpened pencils).

You can see what I mean. One emphasizes the drama of autism driving us forward with sharp tools over millennia, while the other doesn’t even reference autism (at least on the cover design) and emphasizes something being bent apparently out of shape and into a brand-new paradigm. Hence my preference for divergence even more that diversity. To diverge is not a passive term – it’s active – whereas diversity, as important as it is, seems to suggest an already-existing paradigm which we somehow need to accept, rather than a novel set of pattern discoveries arrived at through the strangeness of an astronomically gifted character such as Nikola Tesla, to name just one. Tesla literally invented the future we now occupy but who was easily duped out of his inheritance by more crafty and less weird figures who co-opted his novel ideas based on new/old patterns he found even without seeking them.

Thus the divergent genius who simply reflects reality or actuality back to us, rather than some benevolent diversity-icon who shares his hard-won battles with the rest of us foot-weary soldiers. Because often the people who help us the most are the most active troublemakers. Baron-Cohen explores the creative troublemaking gene in highly cogent chapters focusing on the born (untrained) pattern seeker, the core systematizer, the five types of brains, the mind of an inventor, the revolutionary cognition mode, and the possibilities of nurturing the inventors of the future.

I’m also delighted to celebrate Baron-Cohen’s more dynamic notion of neurodivergence as a driver, if we need to have one, since it’s more aligned to the strength recently suggested by Nancy Doyle, an organizational psychologist, in Forbes magazine in her tribute to the young inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, called “Neurodivergence and the Spirit of Progress: The Hill We Climb”: “With Gorman’s neurodivergent and disabling (auditory processing disorder, hypersensitivity to sound, and speech stuttering, which are shared by many with autism, adha, dyspraxia, dyslexia and more) we have yet another example of disorder turning into difference turning into dynamism.”

Doyle, in a prescient manner that applies powerfully to Baron-Cohen’s impressively sweeping human history of pattern finders, asks us to recognize the obvious fact that so many “neurominorities” tread this unique path, going on to become trailblazers, entrepreneurs and innovators in their fields. They do so by learning early that growing up “disordered” or different can often teach lessons about which neurotypicals have simply no clue whatsoever, since, as Grandin has also pointed out, they expend so much of their energy trying to insure that everyone around them thinks they’re “normal” and therefore admissible into the country club of community.

But what of that other club, the outsiders’ club? That’s the zone of interest explored by Baron-Cohen so skillfully in his new and illuminating history of human invention. Perhaps the most effective way of appreciating his insights is to recognize the importance in our lives of what the existential humourist Steve Wright once characterized as the peripheral visionary: they can see the future, but only way off to the sides. These oddballs, eccentrics and outsiders transformed our world and we obviously need more of them to continue their job. Baron-Cohen examines the huge landscape of such outsider thinkers, most of whose names will probably never even be known, especially since many of their contributions were invisible or even appeared  long before the invention of writing (which, we should remember, only comes about around four or five thousand years ago, out of a lengthy timeline of some seventy thousand years of human development).

Nikola Tesla, inventor of the future (the light bulb, the radio and proto-internet).

The fact is, there is some truth to that popular old adage that people who behave rarely make history. We might add that people who don’t always play well with others sometimes come up with startling and groundbreaking insights in the midst of their seeming solitude. They are actually really with us, just not together with us, and they make history for us, on our behalf. The concept for Baron-Cohen’s study of consciousness exploration and research that focuses on the fringe element of great creators began with a simple enough realization: normal (neurotypical) people often benefit from what outsiders (atypical) people discover by thinking outside the box. Some of these innovators don’t even know where the box is, let alone whether or not they’re inside or outside it.

Rather than make the obvious claim that all people should be treated equally, instead this book explores the outer limits of creativity, not by outlining the discontents to which so many creative examples are prey but rather by examining what actual concrete contributions they have made to changing our world though distinctly different (and often asocial) thought patterns and behaviours. Many of their ideas, inventions, concepts or products have utterly altered the way the rest of us live, and yet they themselves do not at all live the way we do. We often too easily take for granted the impressive array of discoveries made through their lateral thinking and their oblique capacity to recognize not just the totally obvious but also patterns or solutions hiding in plain sight.

Foremost among popular books on a similar subject are those of Dr. Oliver Sacks and Steve Silberman and especially the remarkable contributions of Temple Grandin, all of whose research can be profitably applied via their own unique lateral thinking and embrace of powerful patterns. Such patterns indicate that there is proportional harmony and governing dynamic to the pattern-seeking gift which is echoed in all psychological phenomena. It is in everything from visual art to poetry, from equations to architecture, from music to dance, and from theatre to politics. It is also staring us in the face, but often we are too linear-minded to notice or to feel its powerful impact. The pattern seekers explored by Baron-Cohen, however, cannot fail to notice the proportional harmony inherent in the design of all things, organic and technological, since they live in much closer proximity to such central secrets.

One area in which Baron-Cohen falls short in the opinion of many in the autistic community (a paradox in the first place) is his insistence on Theory of Mind approaches that create overly structured “explanations” for autistic behaviours, while simultaneously suggesting that they are responsible for huge leaps forward culturally and, by extension, socially. For instance, his fixation on the supposed competitive conflict between what he names the Systematizing Mechanism and the so-called "Empathy Circuit” and his observation that “which brain type you have depends on the tuning of the Empathy Circuit and the Systemization Mechanism, which in turn determines where you are on the empathy and systemization bell curve.”

He is commonly known to pursue a Theory of Mind, in fact, that makes him comfortable with claiming that autistic are incapable of empathy and can therefore not speculate on other’s thoughts and feelings – read minds, so to speak. The very use of structured “bell curves” is a bothersome throwback to the kind of value-laden gradation thinking that Hans Asperger utilized in his determinative judgments about sociability and community participation, which in turn allowed him to judge some individuals, especially children, as not worth the care necessary for his lofty extolling of those he deemed "high-functioning."

It even strikes me (from my perspective of close proximity to the subject at hand) more as if we have an overabundance, an overload of empathy, in fact almost a surfeit, a disgust caused by excess, not the opposite, and indeed, it seems to me that all I do all day long is read minds, albeit from a long distance.

The basic and valuable premise being explored by Baron-Cohen is simple. Why do so many major breakthroughs occur largely to those who possess systemically and radically different frames of mind and reference? What can the cognitive uniqueness they all appear to use to navigate the world tell us about the furthest reaches of consciousness exploration and research? In other words, what can we learn from the truly gifted aliens amongst us? But we all may have to search for alternative ways of describing those other unique individuals, many of whom never even made it into the footnotes of formal history. Baron-Cohen also helps to provide new ways of designating and describing difference. I personally propose calling them exactly what they really are: the Exceptionals. This is because, as Alan Turing put it in The Imitation Game (in a passage Baron-Cohen uses for the dedication epigram to this fine book): “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do things no one can imagine.” Or, as Nikola Tesla put it, somewhat more assertively: “I don’t care that they stole my idea. I care that they don’t have any of their own!”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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