When you’re on a plane, do you think about its aerodynamics? When you look at a mountain, do you think about how precisely it was formed? Do you always notice how the music you are listening to is structured? If the answer to all these is yes, you could be what Simon Baron-Cohen calls a hyper-systemiser.
People who are that way inclined have a hard-wired compulsion to seek out patterns in their surroundings, following a simple “if this and that then this” algorithm. It is through this process of endless iterative discovery and experimentation that such minds eventually stumble upon new inventions, pushing human evolution forward, and in many cases changing the world forever. Today, these nerdy brain types are commonly associated with autism. But while society views that condition as a disorder, Baron-Cohen — a clinical psychologist based at the University of Cambridge — argues that its connection with systemising techniques and influence on human invention should not go unnoticed.
“Those humans who had minds with a systemising mechanism in overdrive were — and are — central to the story of invention,” he writes.
Baron-Cohen anchors his theory in the story of young “Al”, also known as Thomas Alva Edison, whose endless compulsion to tinker with things brought us a slew of 19th-century inventions — among them, most famously, the lightbulb. He contrasts this with the story of another young boy named Jonah, now in his 40s, who is similarly plagued by a compulsive pattern-recognising mind. Unlike Edison, Jonah is diagnosed with autism, and his life is a lonely one because he cannot easily fit in with others or succeed at getting a job.
What differentiates the two, Baron-Cohen contends, is how their conditions were treated by family, society and the medical establishment.
This is why, if truly remarkable invention — by which he means both cultural as well as scientific — is to keep happening, such people must be nurtured as gifted individuals, not disadvantaged ones. Systemising minds must be allowed to run free with their curiosity, even if their endless experimentation and stubborn refusal to take accepted norms for granted jars with the other type of mindset in society: those whose minds are geared towards emotional intelligence.
But Baron-Cohen stresses that while the autistic mind can be troubled by its inability to easily identify or empathise with the thoughts and feelings of others — and this can appear aloof or rude — the emotionally intelligent have their foibles too. The collectivist technology of language and storytelling, for example, is a function of our harnessing the power of emotional intelligence, but with it also came our capacity for deception and manipulation — human beings’ use of traps to ensnare prey, for example.
The military, nonetheless, has been quick to recognise the potential of systemising minds. The Israeli army has a special division, called Unit 9900, that specifically taps people with pattern-seeking talents to detect anomalies in satellite images of locations on Earth.
Baron-Cohen notes that this might sound like tedious work to many of us, but to the systemising mind, for whom everything resembles a puzzle that needs solving, it’s more akin to a hobby. If such skills can be nurtured and collectivised constructively via the internet (rather than simply weaponised), they may be able to achieve remarkable things. At the very least they can be used to figure out social truths as well as material ones.
A case in point is how quickly Reddit users detected the exact location and purpose of the mysterious monolith that appeared in the Utah desert in November. It took the community, famed for its nerdy enthusiasm, less than 48 hours to pinpoint the coordinates.
Ultimately the balance between emotional and systemising intelligence, Baron-Cohen notes, is a bit of a zero-sum game. We all fall somewhere on that spectrum. No-one is ever 100 per cent either or. Nor is any one brain better or worse than another. They all have different strengths and weaknesses.
There’s a test you can take in the book to figure out where you fall. My brain type, a very unexciting Type B, represents the perfect balance of systemising to emotional intelligence. The other categories fall somewhere on either end: Extreme E, Type E, Type S and Extreme Type S (where E stands for empathy and S for systemising). Everything in that sense is a trade-off.
This, however, is also where things get controversial. According to Baron-Cohen, statistical evidence shows more often than not that the female brain is more likely to tend towards the emotional, empathetic and manipulative E type, while the male brain is more likely to tend towards the systemising, inventive and experimental S one. This, he argues, is the result of how much testosterone we are exposed to in the womb.
Feminists who object to such stereotypes might, however, point out that Baron-Cohen’s comedian cousin Sacha is one of the most famous deceivers and manipulators of modern times. And male.
As ever, there are exceptions to the rules.
The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, by Simon Baron-Cohen, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 256 pages
Izabella Kaminska is the editor of FT Alphaville
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