9/07/2012

The evolution of special interests

Autism and Oughtisms recently wrote about how her son has added new interests over time, without forgetting about the old ones.  He went from spinning wheels, to clocks and time, and now to an intense interest in the movement of the planets.  If she, who knows him so well, doesn't know for sure what thread connects these interests, I certainly can't.  But, as a person with a lifetime of obsessive, seemingly diverse interests linked by a common theme, I can talk about how this worked in my own life.  I can't guarantee this story will apply well to any particular individual on the spectrum, as I am not autistic and generally love new places, things, ideas, and people, until I get tired or overstimulated.

When I was 11, the computer teacher at my new school gave us the assignment to learn Powerpoint and introduce ourselves to classmates by making a presentation about our lives.  I organized the presentation around a chronological listing of my passionate interests, with occasional major life events thrown in--after all, these were among the greatest joys in my life, they took up most of my time, they made me who I was, and they showed my development over time.  (Of course, to my embarrassment, my classmates were unimpressed).  At that age, I knew that when I had passionate interests I was happy, on fire with curiosity, energy, and desire to learn and create, but when I did not, I was depressed.  However, I didn't figure out what the theme was until I was a sophomore in high school and I read "What is it like to be a bat" by Thomas Nagel.  This was a philosophical essay whose purpose was to explain that a completely reductionist materialist explanation of the world was incomplete, because it did not incorporate the subjective--"what it was like to be something."  I read open-mouthed with that "where have you been all my life?" feeling, realizing that my interests had all been about "what it's like to be something" ever since I was four years old. 

When I was four, I was interested in the planets in our solar system.  I wanted to understand what it was like to be a planet, which at that age meant acting it out rather than writing or reading or sitting there imagining it.  At that age, what something was was what it did--planets rotated, so I would rotate around my teacher, my parents, or anyone else who would stand still long enough to be "the sun."

When I was six, I got interested in dinosaurs.  Now, at this point I realized that the world the dinosaurs inhabited looked very different from our own.  For example, most of the plants I saw every day didn't exist--my suburban self was deeply challenged by the idea of a world without grass.  Understanding what it was like to be a dinosaur meant not just understanding what dinosaurs did, but what they saw, heard, and smelled.  My parents got me a computer game called "3D Dinosaur Adventure" which I thought would show me how things would look through a dinosaur's eyes.  Imagine my disappointment when the game instead asked me to put various textures over a wire-frame dinosaur while it said silly one-liners.  So I drew, instead.  And a year later, when I read Jane Goodall, I observed a colony of Struthiomimuses in our backyard.

When I was seven, I started being interested in cats, and obsessed over them for the next several years.  Again, I wanted to know what it was like to have the senses of a cat.  I remember lying down in the grass (so as to be at a cat's height) at age eight or nine, listening to the neighbors talking next door, trying to hear it as noise the way a cat would and not as words with meanings.  It didn't work very well. 

When I was ten, it finally occurred to me to be interested in people.  Well...prehistoric people, anyway.  This time, I was interested in what they thought and felt as well as what they sensed and did.  At this point I was imagining entirely by writing and drawing rather than more kinesthetic methods.

You see, what interested me in all these cases was a sense of difference.  You don't automatically know what it's like to live in another time, another place, or as another species.  To me, that sparks curiosity--wanting to know--and imagination--attempts to vicariously experience what it might be like.  At some point, probably in my preteens, I finally grew up enough to realize other people in the here and now can be just as remote, and fascinating.  And so began my interest in psychology--in other minds and atypical cognition--that has stayed with me to this day.

If you saw a list of my biggest interests--planets, dinosaurs, prehistoric people, cognitive psychology--would you see any commonalities?  An interest in life science, perhaps?  The common thread was deeper: "what it's like to be something"--and my idea of what that meant changed over time as I developed a more mature sense of psychology and discovered more "other minds" to explore.  If you or a loved one have a history of special interests, did they develop in a similar way?