broken mirror

A shattered mirror

Most of our thinking happens intuitively. Intuition works fast so it is sometimes called fast thinking.1 We are not aware of this so you can barely call it thinking. Only when our intuition runs into trouble reason is called into action. Reason is called slow thinking. If you can get away with the judgements coming from your intuition there is no reason to think things through. Evolution made this happen. It is easy to understand why. Humans who took the time to consider all the options when a pride of lions was coming into their direction didn’t survive and procreate so that their genes died out.

Great chess players don’t consider all the options either. Based on past training and experience their intuition presents a few options to the conscious thinking process called reason. Billions of other options are ignored, nearly all of them not worth considering. That’s what makes a great chess player a great chess player. The brain has limited processing capabilities. Clogging it with countless useless options would downgrade its performance.

Computers don’t have an intuition but they have become fast enough to consider so many options, including a lot of useless ones, that they are able to find better moves that chess players can’t think of because their intuition limits them. Nowadays computers beat even the best chess players. But what if intuition fails you more often than happens to most people? In that case you might consider options other people don’t think of. Others may call you crazy or insane. Indeed, most of the options you consider are not worth considering, but you don’t know that until you have found it out yourself. If that applies to you then you may be autistic. If the condition is sufficiently mild you can still lead a normal life, but you need a major amount of reasoning and experimentation to achieve just that.

Let’s explain this using an example. Yuor brian autmotaically corercts speillng erorrs. Probably you were able read the previous sentence without any effort. Otherwise you have to solve the puzzle by trying out different words to see if they make sense. In that case you might find meanings that weren’t intended. If you must figure out social rules in a similar way, for example by trying courses of action and evaluating responses of other people, you’re in for a lot of trouble. Most people make sense of the world intuitively, but if you are autistic, reality appears to you like a 10,000 pieces jig saw puzzle or a shattered mirror. You must fit the pieces together. That takes a lot of time and effort and the pieces never fit perfectly. What you get is something similar to what other people think of as reality.

Autism nevertheless survived the evolutionary rat race called survival of the fittest. How could this happen? There is a possible explanation. Who can find the answers when intuition fails everyone, for example during a crisis? These situations require trying out ideas other people don’t think of, and quite possibly ignorance with regard to social conventions to pursue these ideas. Perhaps you think of autists as weirdos cracking riddles nobody else can. There is some truth to that image. Some pundits have claimed that Newton and Einstein were autistic. They may have appeared to be geniuses just because they tried options other people didn’t think of. In this way they discovered things other people couldn’t. Autists can keep working on their eccentric projects despite the constant rejection they receive. And some of their efforts turn out to be very useful.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.

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