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Connecting the Dots

After watching A Beautiful Mind my wife said, “I finally get you. You’re always trying to connect the dots.”
While it might be true that my brain processes information in a similar manner to John Nash’s brain, there is no question that its mental capacity is drastically inferior to his. I would say, using a blind date stereotype, my brain isn’t beautiful, but it has a nice personality.

It’s a personality that is driven by Asperger’s to find connections. As a result, people like me “…tend to be very good at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data,” writes autism expert, Dr. Kenneth Roberson. “[However,] …the pattern recognition… fails when it involves recognizing and
understanding how people operate. For some reason, non-human information is easier to recognize, sort out and understand than social information.”

This quirk in my thinking, which is connected to bottom-up thinking, is why you would be more comfortable engaging me at work than engaging with me over coffee. Bottom-up thinking, as explained by Samantha Craft in Bottoms-Up: The Innovative Thinking Style of the Asperger’s Mind, is the reverse of the norm. “The typical- minded [top-down thinking] person is taking in the concept before the details, based on collective memories; the autistic mind, due to a bombardment of sensory clues, is taking in the details before the concept.” And because my attention is on the details, it is hard for me to follow the gist of a conversation or understand context, which is why I am not a good choice for a chat over coffee. I would either irritate you with my inability to engage, bore you with details of an esoteric subject, or confuse you by going off on one of my many tangents.

On the other hand, Craft points out that you’d be more comfortable working with me than socializing with me because my bottom-up approach “…is indispensable to innovative thinking.” According to Martin Silvertant in Thinking Styles in Autistic People, “A top-down thinker sees a set of symptoms and fits it into a prior box. Thoughts and actions are contextualized based upon prior knowledge—and thus, are also constrained by this. The autistic mind is not similarly constrained, and is thus more prone to generating novel ideas, and finding innovative solutions.”

Renowned author and speaker on autism, Temple Grandin, says “being a bottom-up thinker keeps me
grounded in the facts; autism prevents emotions from clouding my judgment.” However, neuroscience has discovered that most decisions are emotional. There are no Joe Fridays who can stick to “Just the facts, ma’am.” The advantage of bottom-up thinking isn’t the removal of emotion, it is the putting of details before concepts. It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without the box cover. We have to put the pieces together before we get the picture. This makes us far less susceptible to confirmation bias, which Colby College’s CogBlog says goes “hand in hand with top-down thinking [and is] …one of the most dangerous types of cognitive biases… [because it] affects our decision making by [drawing attention] towards evidence confirming what we already believe to be true… while ignoring conflicting evidence which may hold more gravity.”

In his iconic Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs stressed, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward;
you can only connect them looking backwards.” Believing you can is a misconception that top-down thinking often confirms. To avoid this bias, it is important to incorporate bottom-up thinking when making decisions. With a clearer picture of the situation more innovative and effective solutions can be found, which is why I prefer my questioning bottom-up thinking mind to a confident top-down thinking one. It’s not the mind of a genius and its personality is quirky, but because it follows the dots instead of its preconceived assumptions, it just might be a beautiful mind.