MonotropismDetail orientation as a trait like handedness.

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I am terrible at multitasking. When my attention bandwidth is extra narrow, like if I haven’t slept enough, sometimes my thoughts can’t make it past the event horizon: I may forget what I wanted to write down halfway through taking a note. Yes I know, everyone is bad at multitasking,[1] but I’m pretty sure some people are worse at it than others.

My superpower is that I can concentrate on one thing for hours, even days. Obsessive projects seem to be my happy place. If anything has changed about this as I’ve gotten older, it is only that I have stopped feeling self-conscious about it.

When I encountered the idea of monotropism, I realized that there could be an underlying principle that explains traits like these. Monotropism and polytropism are two extremes on a theoretical continuum of ways to distribute attention, either by putting more intense attention into fewer things, or shallower attention into more things. It’s natural to make an analogy to computers, because the way humans emulate multitasking is similar to the way computers do it — rapid task switching. Because task switching has a cost, a specialization tends to arise: long-running, intensive jobs are handled by “back end” systems or dedicated threads, and the computation results can be surfaced by “front end” systems or threads which are better adapted to handle real-time interfaces with users or other systems. The idea of monotropism suggests that humans have this kind of specialization, too. Maybe the ability to task switch easily vs. the ability to concentrate deeply is a characteristic like being left handed or right handed.

My theory is that there is a spectrum from neurotypical to introverted to Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), and that the variable across this spectrum is how monotropic one is. It’s not a completely original theory, as monotropism is already acknowledged as a potential explanation for autism[2] (here is a list of seven). What I like about the monotropism explanation is that it illuminates the low-level tradeoff in simple terms, and suggests that monotropes and polytropes both have strengths that can complement each other.

Why do I think this is important? I think our culture has a long way to go in treating the introversion/Asperger neurotype as normal and fully valued. I think many others could be spared the kind of confusion I faced growing up. I was never diagnosed with AS, but two members of my immediate family were (as adults), and according to psychologist Tony Attwood, girls are underdiagnosed by as much as 50% due to their distinct coping mechanisms.[3] I’m introverted, at a minimum, so I’ll consider myself qualified to speculate on that basis.

I think monotropism can explain the classic AS difficulty with social situations as follows. If it’s true that communication is 80% nonverbal (body language and tone of voice) and only 20% content (choice of words), then when you speak with someone in real time, you need to pay attention to several channels at once. But in a high-bandwidth situation, being monotropic can be kind of like having tunnel vision: when you focus on one aspect, the others disappear, and as soon as you try to recover one of the other aspects, the first one disappears. So you are forced to choose a single aspect to lock focus on, in order to get any traction. That aspect is most likely to be the content, because that is the one thing you are liable to be quizzed on. This could explain the phenomenon of “missing social cues” — it’s an intentional triage. But the fact that it’s possible to eventually learn even complex behaviors well enough to put them on autopilot, such as driving, suggests that skills like social interaction can improve with practice, and sure enough, there’s evidence that autism improves in adulthood.[4]

Intense but narrow attention could explain the sometimes contradictory ways that AS presents. Penelope Trunk, who is vocal about her AS diagnosis, wrote that she is clumsy most of the time, bumps into things and so on, yet she is very coordinated when she concentrates on doing something physical, and in fact was almost an olympic-level volleyball player.[5]

I suspect that garden-variety introversion is also driven by mild monotropism. The current consensus definition of introversion seems to be a lower preference or tolerance for stimulation. What is stimulation but exposure to novel attentional objects? The more traditional definition of introversion is a preference for less social interaction. Explaining this in terms of monotropism also seems straightforward: when you are focused on something, interfacing with another human is a distraction; so if you are a person who feels most comfortable when focusing on something, you may be unlikely to seek out social interaction. I don’t think the poor compatibility between concentration and communication is controversial — I’ve had multiple people apologize to me about seeming out of sorts because they’d spent all day heads down on writing or coding.

A few of my experiences growing up also seem to support the monotropism theory in a development context. I think it took me longer than is typical to understand narrative. For example:

At sixteen, I had an epiphany that music lyrics were often trying to express something. It was like one of those stereogram images, which looks like noise, but if you cross your eyes just enough, a figure pops out. Until that moment I guess I had no idea why there were words in songs. So I went through my music collection and listened to all my favorite songs to see if there was a story in the lyrics. I made a mix tape with the ones that had the most salient or interesting stories, like “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I enthusiastically gave the tape to one of my newer friends (I was a college freshman at the time) and said to him, “Listen to the words!” But I didn’t tell him why, and thinking back now, the poor fellow probably listened to that tape thinking I was trying to send him a personal message, and he must have been very confused.

Maybe a year later, I rewatched one of my favorite childhood films, “Transformers: The Movie” with some fellow fans of the toy franchise. Since I had clear memories of the experience of watching the movie when younger, that allowed me to compare to my current understanding. Watching it as a teenager, I realized that it had a plot. It was like seeing something in color when it had only been in black and white before. The scenes and voices were familiar, but I remembered them as a jumble of rote sequences. I now saw that the characters were trying to achieve things and there was a progression from before to after. This layer of meaning had been invisible to me at whatever age I originally watched and re-watched this movie (nine or ten?). I don’t know at what age it is considered typical development to start being able to grasp movie plots (it’s pretty hard to keyword search for, and I don’t know any developmental psychologists), but everyone I have described this experience to thinks it’s strange to remember a time before having the ability to perceive story or plot.

To sum up, then: when I started high school, I sat in honors math in the next higher grade level (and was a year younger than my grade, so was two years younger than my math classmates) but I didn’t understand movie plots or song lyrics.

When I look back at my progression of mental development, or at least what I remember of it, it seems that my inner world consisted of islands of clarity surrounded by an ocean of arbitrary. It’s not that I didn’t have the cognitive tools to put pieces together and realize what they mean; it was a matter of scope. I could understand what was being acted out in a movie scene, but not an entire movie. So what seemed to be different between me and my peers — what I’m hypothesizing to be a monotropic characteristic — was that I was faster than average in grasping discrete, self-contained subjects, but slower than average in lacing together a bigger picture. If human mental development were like developing a photograph in a darkroom, the usual progression might be for the entire picture to gradually emerge with consistent sharpness throughout, whereas in my case it was more like a number of pinholes appeared, grew into spotlights of full detail, and continued expanding until they merged together and the picture was complete. So, part way through this process, I was lucid enough to realize that I had some deficiency compared to others (forgetfulness, clumsiness), but couldn’t understand the reason or how to fix it. When other kids were at a similar level of big picture innocence, at that earlier age they probably weren’t lucid enough to see that they were missing anything. I think this difference set back my self-confidence curve a fair bit.

With respect to being a late bloomer “catching up” to the rest of the world in breadth, I wonder what the bigger picture is that I’m still not seeing, and which maybe almost no one is able to see, because maybe it takes unusually strong scope of awareness. And maybe it’s rare to have the chance to develop this because the human lifespan is so short, witnessing only a tiny fragment of history and being exposed to just a speck of all possible data. What is the next layer of meaning that we have so far been too immature to grasp as a species, because our spotlight of attention isn’t big enough to connect the dots?

I used to have a pet theory of AS. Since humans are herd animals, who band together for resource sharing and mutual protection, there is evolutionary reason for human minds and brains to be optimized for interaction with other humans. Some amount of computation power helps with this; for example, it’s suggested that the reason human irises are smaller than in other animals, such that the whites of the eyes are visible, is so that it is conspicuous to other humans which direction the owner of the eyes is looking. The ability to reason about what others are thinking can be important for communicating effectively and building relationships. So, evolutionary pressure would start to afford the human brain some general reasoning capability, but this would naturally show up more like a game console than a full computer. Hear me out: A game console has a processor, but the platform is so adapted to the purpose of gaming that it is rarely used for something else. A general-purpose computer can play games, and do it well, but this takes somewhat more effort — both in development, and in the playing — because a lot of the capabilities and peripherals that are provided as standard on the game console have to be built up or adapted on the computer. If you only wanted to play games, you would be needlessly complicating your life to get a full computer, but if you wanted to do more than play games, it might be a worthwhile tradeoff.

So the theory was that “normal” (polytropic, neurotypical) people have adaptations that give them automatic, innate abilities in social situations, like how horses can stand up immediately after they are born. But in AS, the theory goes, these native social abilities are attenuated or absent. These abilities can be emulated in software, given enough processing power and training, but it takes time, and thus may look like delayed social development.[6] The benefit of this tradeoff would be avoiding an evolutionary local maximum, which means the system overall is capable of more. After all, the time period of human gestation and immaturity is already among the longest of all animals, which seems to be necessary to support greater complexity, so maybe this represents another step in that direction. Similar to the fictional world of X-Men, in which some minority of people are born with mutations that give them superpowers, maybe Aspies represent the emergence of a more flexible cognition platform, capable of thought that is more rational and less influenced by in-built social biases.

It’s certainly a flattering picture, if you are on the spectrum, but the problem is, it doesn’t reflect what we see in reality. In his article “Nerd culture is destroying Silicon Valley”,[7] Pete Warden points out how technologists — many of whom were once socially marginalized — do not seem to always display the rational behavior one would expect from an advanced cognition platform. It seems that once they gain power, they often use it in the same manipulative and shallow ways that they previously resented from others. What this behavior seems to actually demonstrate is tunnel vision and social immaturity. And maybe that isn’t surprising.

So I have come to believe that monotropism and polytropism are simply two attention distribution strategies with their own characteristic strengths. In fact, I think both neurotypes need each other, just as the white matter and gray matter of the brain need each other.

But I think monotropes have had a bit more of an uphill climb. When my father was a kid, the word for what he is was “shy.” When I was young, the term for it was “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, inattentive type” (a hilarious oxymoron, like saying “hyperactivity without the hyperactivity”). It seems clear how a trait that makes you run deep instead of broad can have side effects of isolation and even maybe invisibility. Yet in a world increasingly orchestrated by computers, monotropic talents of concentration are more relevant than ever.[8] Here as in other contexts, understanding the nature of our differences is key to mutual respect and to identifying the kind of support that each of us needs to develop our strengths.

I like to imagine that in the future, we will identify (as opposed to diagnose) monotropism. And from a young age there will be dedicated social groups, guidance and coaching, and tailored learning environments…​ well, one can dream.

1. Jon Hamilton, Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again: “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
2. In 2013, with the release of DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5), the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome was removed in favor of grouping the symptoms in with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, I’m skeptical of this, since according to my understanding (mostly shaped by reading Temple Grandin), classic Kanner’s autism has trouble with language and identifying categories (for example, telling cats from dogs), while Asperger’s tends to be hyperlexic and not only fluent with categories but even fixated on them. All those smart psychologists must have known what they were doing, but in any case, many choose to continue to use the term “Asperger Syndrome” and in this article, I will too.
3. In 2015, Tony Attwood gave a lecture on Asperger’s in females at the Annual Women’s Health Update in Sydney, AU, 2015. In this talk he said the gender ratio for AS is considered to be 4:1 male to female, but the true ratio is closer to 2:1 because “girls with Asperger’s are smarter and more creative than the boys in coping with their social confusion.”
4. Daniel J. DeNoon, “Autism Improves in Adulthood” WebMD, 2007.
5. From Penelope Trunk’s blog: “I was always great at sports. In grade school, I was the only girl the boys let play kickball. In middle school, I was a regional figure skating champion. After college, I played professional volleyball. …​ But if I’m not focusing on the sport at hand, I lose track of my body. I bump into so many things that I almost always have bruises on my thighs, shins, and shoulders. This happens so routinely to me that it wasn’t until the past few years that I realized that not everyone bumps into each other, and people think I’m being inconsiderate.”
6. The “Sally-Anne test” for theory of mind can be seen as as support for this view. This test attempts to measure whether the subject can comprehend that another person may have a different state of belief than their own. Sally puts a marble in a box and goes for a walk. Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s box and puts it in her own box. When Sally comes back, where will she look for the marble? “In the Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) study, 23 of the 27 clinically unimpaired children (85%) and 12 of the 14 Down syndrome children (86%) answered the Belief Question correctly. However, only four of the 20 autistic children (20%) answered correctly. Overall, children under the age of four, along with most autistic children (of older ages), answered the Belief Question with ‘Anne’s box’, seemingly unaware that Sally does not know her marble has been moved.” Apparently non-human primates pass the test, based on eye tracking. To me, this test is essentially a modeling problem and should be solvable with sufficient general intelligence. The speculation is that the non-human primates — and neurotypicals to a greater extent than those with AS — might have a kind of firmware that specializes in social modeling.
7. “When I look around, I see the culture we’ve built turning from a liberating revolution into a repressive incumbency. We’ve built magical devices, but we don’t care enough about protecting ordinary people from harm when they use them. We don’t care that a lot of the children out there with the potential to become amazing hackers are driven away at every stage in the larval process. We don’t care about the people who lose out when we disrupt the world, but just about the winners (who tend to look a lot like us). …​ I’d always hoped we were more virtuous than the mainstream, but it turns out we just didn’t have enough power to cause much harm. Our ingrained sense of victimization has become a perverse justification for bullying.”
8. Well-known Albert Einstein quote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”