Autistic attention III: Patternmaking & the Curse of the Million Bits

Human brains, alike the brains housed in other animals, are intrinsically geared towards patternmaking as a fundamental survival function; via the interface of whatever senses are available to us, our brains (and nervous systems) are constantly scanning the environment, receiving sensory (and extra-sensory) signals, from which we unconsciously select, interpret, classify, and translate into smaller chunks of information – firstly to assess safety or threat, but as humans we also consciously organise information to fit our personal (highly-individualised) reality maps.

According to one report I read, the unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second, compared to the estimate for conscious processing of about 40 pieces of information per second. 

Aside from wondering how on earth these figures can be estimated in the first place (how do the researchers establish a measure of ‘information’ when everything is ‘in the process of formation’?), I find this concept, as applied generally to the behaviour of human brains, staggering.  If I then extrapolate this idea into the context of autistic, and especially Aspergers, brains, and even more especiallier my own brain, I find myself beckoned deep and headlong into the Bunnyhole…

Since my self-assessment in 2018, I’ve been scanning the ‘autism landscape’ (books, online resources etc) for information, and reflecting on my own personal blend of autistic sensitivities and Asperger traits. In the process, I’ve formulated some theories for myself about the nature of my autistic brain, and it’s pleasantly affirming whenever I discover that someone else has also come to the same, or similar, conclusions.  One such is a research paper from 2009 by Baron-Cohen et al, entitled ‘Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity’, and you can download the full paper here.

This paper investigates many things I’ve felt strongly about for awhile now:

– at its core, autism describes a state of sensory hypersensitivity

– this is either caused by, or in conjunction with, increased density of connections within parts of the brain

– this contributes to the brain’s capacity for hyper-attention and patternmaking (systemising), which directly influences creative thought & perception

– these hyper-connective perceptual capacities contribute directly to what we call ‘talent’, ‘giftedness’ and ‘genius’ states

It seems logical to me that for a brain to develop a capacity for hyper-focus, it must necessarily require more neural connections within itself, in some area of function or other. And it seems natural to me that a brain with more connections would access more information within itself; I also imagine that the more connections there are, the more likelihood of different, or unrelated, clusters of information connecting with each other, enabling the brain to formulate a greater range of possibilities (eg new patterns and systems of information). I’m not the first to suggest that this points directly to processes of creativity and innovation within the brain. 

There is a growing body of research into mapping autistic brains, all clearly demonstrating that there is no One Size Fits All, and that arguments of ‘more’ or ‘less’ anything (eg ‘superior brain function’ claimed on both sides of the autistic / non-autistic binary) are redundant. Observations of active autistic brains using fMRI technology have provided striking images suggesting particular differences in autistic brain development and interconnectivity. Some tests show areas of underdeveloped connectivity (in some autistic people) and others show areas of hyperconnectivity in regard to specialised processing functions (eg visual thinking or language) – again, in some autistic people

Any scientific enquiry can only focus on one small area of information at a time, and without becoming intimate with every human brain on the planet, we shouldn’t generalise anything the research describes.  Any human brain is a mystery, any mind unfathomable, and the fact of human consciousness defies all definition, measurement and language. The best we can do is maintain open curiosity and notice what emerges.

The Curse of the Million Bits

One of my favourite online resources is the Embrace Autism website, created by Canadian autistics Dr Natalie Engelbrecht and Martin Silvertant.  They provide some great commentary on autism research, and this article takes a closer look at hyperconnectivity in autistic brains:

In particular, the article describes a tendency for neural hyperconnectivity in localised clusters, resulting in much more short-range associative thinking – ie one thought can quickly lead to many others, and the mind cannot necessarily control these associative thoughts.  This can result in very lateral, spontaneous creative patternmaking, or in a sudden, seemingly disorganised flood of conflicting thoughts.

This immediately made sense to me in terms of my own day-to-day experience, and in particular what I’ve come to think of as “The Curse Of The Million Bits”.  Firstly, I want to set the context here as that of ‘conscious awareness’ – being present, being mindful, having heightened sensory focus.

My degree of conscious awareness (mindfulness) is the result of several factors, reinforced over my lifetime (five decades), the main ones being:

– Creative hyperfocus: A lifetime spent deeply immersed in creative processes (illustration, music, painting, portraiture, graphic design, sculpture, writing etc)

– Teaching: Nearly 30 years spent deliberately analysing and deconstructing these creative processes into cognitive steps, in order to model them effectively to anyone, regardless of their level of experience. This has included not only the obvious, or visible, steps but also the subtle inter-relationships involved in the ‘feel’ of a process.

– Esoteric focus / self-awareness:  A lifelong interest and immersive learning in the areas of perception and experiential phenomena, via psychology, philosophy, mystical traditions and their many areas of overlap.  Included here are specific techniques for developing conscious awareness, such as Vipassana meditation, yoga and shamanic practices.

– Mental health / emotional awareness:  In tandem with the above techniques, learning to consciously navigate many decades of accumulative depression, trauma, anxiety and emotional turbulence.

All of the above have habituated in me a high degree of mindful awareness, that naturally enhances my creativity and capacities for communication etc;  yet it also means I now have a Mind that is acutely aware of itself, and if I’m not travelling well, the inescapable fact of this can feel maddening. 

Consider any mundane domestic process – getting up in the morning, having a shower, making a coffee, washing the dishes, emptying your bowels – our most habituated and automatic actions require a sequence of very specific actions and thoughts.  If even one step is left out the whole process can fall apart.  Imagine if, every time you performed one of these mundane actions, you were acutely aware of all the steps, even after performing the sequence a million times – like a movie that you watched every day, constantly slowed down so all you see are the individual frames on the film.  Or to extend on this idea, imagine you had to describe every single step precisely to someone who had no concept whatsoever of the action, and who had never performed the necessary sequence.

I am describing here a heightened state of conscious awareness, arising from sensory perception processes within the brain.  I’m not claiming I am in this state in every waking moment, but I have reinforced the state at will over so many years now (eg in meditation, teaching & creative focus), that it is always hovering within easy access (being of my own nervous system, after all).  It becomes problematic and frustrating when I just want to get something trivial out of the way, and this meta-awareness kicks in unbidden, creating a sudden cognitive complexity that I can’t force myself to be unconscious of.  I won’t insult the people who genuinely live with the condition by saying I’m ‘a bit OCD’, but when I’m in this state I think I begin to get a very small taste of how distressing OCD might be.  Likewise for the autistic people who live with truly incapacitating sensory sensitivities – another example of the brain in a state of heightened conscious awareness, arising from hyperconnectivity.

Having this heightened awareness of sequence & process alters my perception of time, and I think part of my frustration in these moments might be that I experience an intense ‘time dissonance’:  I am simultaneously cognitive of the ‘slowed-down’ time presented by the ‘million bits’, and the broader sense of time in which I might otherwise be engaged in something else – eg immersed in writing this, but having to interrupt it by going to the toilet (where today ‘going to the toilet’ = carefully moving the doona aside, getting out of my warm bed, carefully placing the laptop down so I don’t damage the USB stick in the side port, opening the bedroom door, navigating the loungeroom & kitchen to get to the toilet, ensuring that the toilet lid with a faulty hinge doesn’t fall down while I’m urinating, waiting to ensure the final drops are passed because I have an aging urinary tract, flush the toilet, tuck myself in, deal with any variables such as interactions with other people in the house (a subset of complexities in itself), navigate back to my room, close the door, rearrange the pillows and position myself back in bed ensuring that my back is properly supported, carefully retrieve the laptop with attached USB, and re-engage with my thought processes prior to the tedious interruption). 

Quite likely you found reading the above sequence tedious or irritating, and you probably felt impatience rising in you. And were you to inspect the sequence more carefully, I’m sure you could also think of many more possible points along the process. Anyway, you get the picture……or you may understand the picture all too well from having lived within it yourself.  This might also help some people understand why so many autistic people are easily exhausted in the course of a seemingly straightforward day.  Also, whenever some point of the process is disrupted – you drop or spill something, something breaks or ceases to function as it should, your attention is compromised by a movement nearby or someone talking to you – the sequence is suddenly magnified by the disruption, because now there are more (insert expletive) steps to deal with!

I don’t know if this hyper-aware phenomena is related to the localised hyperconnective clustering described in some autistic brains, but it makes sense to me that it could be – the brain’s pinpointed awareness in a given moment, accessing all immediately-relevant connections; although in this case my brain seems to be somehow making (usually unconscious) procedural memory visible.  This begins to feel a lot closer to the futility of the mind observing the mind observing the mind (ad infinitum…), as described by Alan Watts in his discourses on Zen.

This also raises other questions for me about popular notions of ‘mindfulness’ or ‘being in the moment’.  We are encouraged by all kinds of ‘authorities’ to ‘be present’, and that to attain a state of timelessness or ‘eternal now’ is something to strive towards and attain for oneself, akin to enlightenment.  I tend to think that these descriptions are misconstrued as relating to one singular ideal of consciousness, whereas they may be attempting to encapsulate a range of perceptual experiences, all with an underlying quality of heightened conscious awareness, but some perhaps more helpful than others, depending on context. And if my mindfulness leads me to feel trapped in the minutiae of a moment, and I then become frustrated, then of course it is my choice in that moment as to whether I harness my mindfulness to simply observe the frustration as another passing moment…..or not. As the Sufi remind us, ‘And this, too, shall pass away’…..

Then of course, if we can stretch (or allow, or forget) our awareness into the paradoxical unrealm of Zen and Tao experience, our brains (and nervous systems) seem to experience conscious awareness in some other way that defies description altogether, but I’ll save that little Bunnyhole for another time….