Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Color and Shape of Thought

Several months ago, Catana recommended Nancy Kress's Sleepless trilogy to me, and just this past couple weeks I finally got my hands on the first book, Beggars in Spain. While there were a lot of things that interested me about this book, I'd have to say that it was Kress's rendering of her characters' thought processes that excited me the most.

While Beggars in Spain is not about autism per se, it is about a neurological minority who are stigmatized for their difference. However, this neurological minority is human-created rather than spontaneously occurring (although, once the people with the mutation --- called Sleepless, since they don't sleep --- grow up and have children, there come to be spontaneously-occurring Sleepless).

Of the two characters whose thinking is most vividly described, one is a genetically-modified, hyperintelligent Sleepless and the other is a baseline human, illiterate and lacking the memory, verbal dexterity, problem-solving skill and reasoning ability prized by his "meritocratic" society*, though his more intuitive, nonverbal thought processes often give him insights his more organized, logical counterparts overlook.

The first character, Miranda (a child who lives on an all-Sleepless orbiting space colony), has a pattern of thinking she calls "strings", in which every semantic component of a phrase gives rise to a chain of associations, and each chain forms part of a larger design. When she uses this method in school**, she often comes up with different answers than the "right" ones:
The terminal was in visual mode only: they were practicing reading. The problem was "doll:plastic::baby:?" Miri said, "My turn," and typed in "God." The terminal flashed a frowning face.
"That's not right," Joan said, with some satisfaction.
"Yes, it is," Miri said, troubled. "The terminal's wrong."
"I suppose you know more than the terminal!"
"God is right," Miri insisted. "It's four strings down."
Despite herself, Joan looked interested. "What do you mean, four strings down? There's no strings in this problem."
"Not in the problem," Miri said. She tried to think how to explain it; she could see it in her mind, but explaining it was harder. Especially to Joan. Before she could begin, Ms. Patterson was there.
"Is there a problem here, girls?"
Joan said, not nastily, "Miri has a wrong answer, but she says it's right."
Ms. Patterson looked at the screen. She knelt down beside the children. "How is it right, Miri?"
Miri tried. "It's four little strings down, Ms. Patterson. See, a 'doll' is a 'toy' --- the first string goes from doll to toy. A toy is for 'pretend,' and one thing we pretend is that a shooting star is a real star, so you can put 'shooting star' next in the first string. To make the pattern work." So many words was hard work; Miri wished she didn't have to explain so hard. "Then a shooting star is really a meteor, and you have to make the string go real now, because before you made it pretend, so the end of the first string, four little strings down, is 'meteor.'"
Ms. Patterson was staring at her. "Go on, Miri."
"Then for 'plastic,'" Miri said, a little desperately, "the first string leads to 'invented.' It has to, you see, because 'toy' led to 'pretend.'" She tried to think of a way to explain that the fact that the little strings were one place off from each other was part of the whole design, echoed in the inversion she was going to make of the same words in substrings two and three, but that was too hard to explain. She stuck to the strings themselves, not the overall design, which troubled her because the overall design was just as important. It just took too long to explain in her stammering speech. "'Invented' goes to 'people,' of course, because people invent things. The people string leads to 'community,' a lot of people, and that string has to go to 'orbital,' because then the two strings lined up next to each other make the problem say 'meteor:orbital'."
Ms. Patterson said in a funny voice, "And that's a reasonable analogy. Meteor does bear a definable relation to orbital: one natural and inhuman, one constructed and human."
Miri wasn't sure what all Ms. Patterson's words meant. This wasn't going right. Ms. Patterson looked a little scary, and Joan looked lost. She plunged ahead anyway. "Then for 'baby,' the first string leads to 'small.' That leads to 'protect,' like I do [my brother] because he's smaller than me and might get hurt if he climbs too high. Then the little string goes to 'community' because the community protects people, and the fourth little string has to go to 'people' because a community is people, and because it was that way upside down under 'plastic,' and a lot of our orbital is made of plastic."
Ms. Patterson still had her funny voice. "So at the end of three sets of strings --- Joan, don't change the screen just yet --- at the end of these strings of yours, the problem reads 'meteor is to orbital as people is to blank' and you typed in 'God'."
"Yes," Miri said, more happily now --- Ms. Patterson did understand! --- "because an orbital is an invented community, while a meteor is just bare rock, and God is a planned community of minds, while people alone are just one by one bare."
Afterwards, Grandma was quiet a long time.
"Miri, do you always think this way? In strings that make designs?"
"Yes," Miri said, astonished. "Don't you?"
Grandma didn't answer that. "Why did you want to type in the analogy that exists four little strings down on the terminal?"
"You mean instead of eight or ten strings down?" Miri said, and Grandma's eyes got very wide. (Italics in the original, emphases mine. I have also removed Miri's stutter for the sake of readability.)

I thought this passage showed particular empathy for how it feels to try and communicate a train of thought like this. Miri's desperation and panic, as she worries that Joan and Ms. Patterson aren't following, are very familiar. Am I crazy? Is this just not logical at all, and I don't see it? Am I not logical? Or am I just failing spectacularly at showing them the logic of it? I also recognized Miri's strategic decision not even to try to convey the more abstract, spatial qualities of her thought --- later in the book, her brother will create a computer program that allows them to display the whole pattern, thus obviating the need for speech and its misleading simplification.

My thought is not exactly like Miri's, though, because even though the relations between her "strings" might be more geometrical than verbal, each "little string" --- the single steps between elements in a design --- is semantic in nature. It's a relationship between elements that is easily describable in words: for instance, many of the examples in the above passage are linked by category, properties or function. If anything, this is perfectly conventional linear thinking extended to one more spatial dimension.

Interestingly, there's another character in the book whose thought shares with mine all the traits that Miri's does not. It's completely nonverbal, and visual at a more immediate level:
They told him he had to learn to read, and he worked at the terminal every day, even though it was slow scooting and he didn't see how he would ever use it. Terminals spoke you whatever you wanted to know,and when there were words on the screen there wasn't as much room for graphics. Graphics made more sense to Drew than words anyway. They always had. He felt things in graphics, colors and shapes in the bottom of his brain that somehow floated up to the top and filled his head. The old lady was a spiral, brown and rust-colored; the desert at night filled him with soft sliding purple. Like that. But they said to learn to read, so he did.
While Miri's thought is essentially verbal, with words (or other semantic units --- bits of code, amino acids, whatever) serving as the basic unit and the spatial qualities only emerging at higher levels of complexity, Drew's thought is visual on its simplest level. My thought, while structurally a lot like Miri's, also uses vague visual symbolism rather than words or logical formulations. The elements of my thought are images, and the connections between elements --- Miri's "strings" --- can be visual associations. An image, as it moves or subtly changes color, comes to mean something else, and that meaning does not always map easily onto a logical statement. (The motion is also a crucial part of my thought: like Miri's three-dimensional logic webs, the movement of my mental images adds a layer of complexity).

One thing I find striking, in light of the ongoing discussion of intelligence and functional labeling in the autism blogosphere, is the huge gap between the apparent intelligence of these characters who both embody aspects of my thinking. Miri is clearly supposed to be a genius, while Drew is just as clearly meant to be a little thick***.

*The major narrative framing the story is that of America drifting from its current social structure to a more rigid, "Gattaca"-esque hierarchy, with Sleepless at the very top, controlling the biggest, most lucrative business empires; non-Sleepless who still possess customized genes for heightened intelligence, driven personalities, good looks etc. running the media, politics, and much of the business world; and the vast non-genetically-modified majority existing on welfare, since they can't possibly compete for jobs with superhumans.

**I loved the fact that Kress used analogies as the test case for Miri's thinking leading to "wrong" answers. Analogies are notorious for having many unforeseen, alternate answers!

***Kress does, through this character, effectively demolish notions of a single, measurable thing called "intelligence," which I think is awesome. For all his illiteracy and repeated academic failures, Drew still manages to become a great artist and to have great insight into other characters' states of mind.


CS McClellan/Catana said...

I'm so glad you finally got a chance to read Kress's book. I always find it thrilling to see different ways of thinking so well described.

stevethehydra said...

Haven't read the book, but it sounds very interesting. Might try to track it down.

Drew sounds typically dyslexic to me.

Still need to respond properly to your "Neurodiversity and Feminist Theory" series of posts...