I’m conscious of how my mind works. I continually try to optimise my working processes to get the most out of my lack of mental discipline and my all or nothing productivity curve.
I love a barrage of disparate thought processes, typified by my current attempt to learn iPhone development, more design patterns, processing, Arduino tinkering, Maya particle scripting, and everyone else’s coolest After Effects tricks – while building an online illustration tool with supporting social network, reinstating pages from my old website into this blog plus fixing its CSS glitches, creating an animated short about the Pentagon hit on 9/11 featuring a VO recorded 6 years ago, coding a multiuser online installation to explore if some people are more lucky than others, and developing an interactive narrative about a lost child called Elsie.
I should be sorting out my tax return, filing 7 months of backdated expense forms at work, and looking for a new mortgage.
And I should be sorting out my tax return, filing 7 months of backdated expense forms at work, and looking for a new mortgage.
It may be a self fulfilling paradox, but I am very conscious about how much I think about the way I think, so when I started reading The Speed Of Dark by Elizabeth Moon last week I became enthralled by its first person account of the thoughts of a high functioning autistic bloke called Lou.
Before I started the book I didn’t know very much about Autism other than Dustin’s character in Rain Man had something similar. In The Speed of Dark Lou describes his obsession with patterns, from the simple red, blue, white, all off light sequence of a beer sign in the window of the canteen at work to the highly complex patterns he spots for living – patterns too subtle and complex for ‘normal’ people to recognise.
I don’t suffer from autism, or the milder Aspergers, and don’t mean to belittle either condition, but I’ve felt a real affinity with Lou. I’m very different from Lou in that I love to socialise and enjoy what Lou describes as ‘the fast bouncing of conversation’ that causes Lou to short circuit, being unable to speak.
The part of my brain that puts names to faces shuts down completely
But I do have a specific trigger for something similar. In a social setting I can’t remember people’s names – you can tell me your name and 5 seconds later I won’t be able to remember it. I’ve even failed to remember my family’s names in extreme circumstances. After the event, when the pressure of needing to recall someone’s name has gone, it all comes to me with no effort at all. It feels like an internal panic attack and my mind goes blank. The part of my brain that puts names to faces shuts down completely, akin to Lou’s meltdown when going through airport security and asked a question by the staff.
Lou has to have the right music in his head to spot his patterns and I, like many developers, have experience of getting into the zone with the help of familiar ambient music. It’s as if the regularity of the music, it’s lack of surprising contrast, drowns out the rhythmless noise of our environment. The alternative is to completely remove all noise, but unlike my good friend Colin, I’m not prepared to sit at my computer wearing ear defenders.
The extensive list of projects that occupies my mind at any one time actually prevents me from making any real progress on anything specific, so where Lou trampolines, listening to ‘the right kind of music’ to get into the zone, I’ve found long showers and distance swimming provide an environment that drowns out the world allowing me to leave my body on autopilot while my mind explores with a focus on one thing at a time, leaving me in the zone to forge ahead. But all it takes is to turn up at work and be interrupted with the simplest of tangents and it’s lost.
It’s a sad day when you can remember the pin number for your first ever ATM card 22 years ago but you can’t memorise your own child’s date of birth.
Another flaw in my mind is the inability to remember certain numbers at any time – pressure or no pressure. I have two children and I know the eldest’s date of birth instantly under any circumstance because it is one day off being binary in structure – 09/10/01 – but my youngest’s birthday just won’t stick. I’ve had 5 years now to memorise it, but I can’t find a pattern to hold it inside my head. It’s a sad day when you can remember the pin number for your first ever ATM card 22 years ago but you can’t memorise your own child’s date of birth.
But I know I’m not alone. In particular, creative technologists often display many of these traits, including Lou’s perfectly logical thought process, and his social ineptitude. Many, but not all, of the best developers I’ve worked with are terrible in client meetings because they can’t see the value in discussion beyond what’s required to get the job done. I once had a programmer silently and unexpectedly walk out of a job interview, not because he was pissed off, but simply because he felt the interview was satisfactorily complete.
The Speed of Dark has piqued my interest in the way I think and led me to discover a massive amount of chat about the subject, much of it under the title of Visual Thought. It’s fascinating stuff and understanding it better is tangibly improving my productivity by allowing my channel my thoughts into more linear streams when I need to get stuff done. I still let the strings fly wildly when I’m not working though, as it’s the play of their crossing where the magic lives.
We all know that to be a great programmer we need to think in an extremely structured and logical way, and as the traits associated with the autistic spectrum result in part from a malfunction of the right half of the brain, this can result in the left half working overtime to compensate. When someone talking to you uses a metaphor, or other potentially ambiguous language the left half of your brain freaks out and the right half takes over using its imaginative non-linear strengths to make sense of what’s being said. It’s the right side of your brain that allows you interpret other people’s emotions and do all that touchy feely stuff.
But what happens if you create a concentration of left brain thinkers?
Perhaps this explains why so many developers struggle in a social setting – their left brain strengths have swayed them towards a career path that relies on logic.
But what happens if you create a concentration of left brain thinkers? Imagine if an industry sprang up that relied on such people, resulting in a dense population of super-geeks. So dense that they started breeding little geeks. If autism is genetic, as it we are starting to believe it is, would this not cause an increase in the cases of people being born with traits from the autistic spectrum?
Silicon Valley. Oh dear. California saw cases of autism triple in the 90s. Is this a result of geeks breeding geeks? I hope not.