Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review: Look Me in the Eye

Look Me in the Eye is the second of two memoirs from Asperger's victims that Cynthia got me to read. Reading two books rather than just one was important because you get very different views from the two authors.

For instance, Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day goes into great detail into his cognitive processes when solving a problem, or memorizing a number. His description doesn't match at all my cognitive processes, so I could not relate to what he does. Robison's memoir, however, focuses on events and emotions, and those are very relate-able. In one passage, he describes his reaction to massive disasters:
I have what you might call "logical empahty" for people I don't know. That is, I can understand that it's a shame that those people died in the plane crash. And I understand they have families, and they are sad. But I don't have any physical reaction to the news. And there's no reason I should. I don't know them and the news has no effect on my life. Yes, it's sad, but the same day thousands of other people died from murder, accident, disease, natural disaster, and all manner of other causes. I feel I must put things like this in perspective and save my worry for things that truly matter.

As a logical thinker, I cannot help thinking... that people who exhibit dramatic reactions to bad news involving strangers are hypocrits... they don't seem very different from actors and actresses --- they are able to bust into tears on command, but does it really mean anything?
I wonder how many people feel that way, and whether that's a distinguishing feature of Asperger's. In some ways, the world would be a better place if people routinely reacted like that: terrorism would have less of a grip on people's imaginations and hence be less effective. But disaster relief would be much less forthcoming!

Later, as he gets better at dealing with people, he discovers that the intense focus which made him a genius at designing circuits, electronics, and mechanical devices faded as he became more and more as an extrovert:
As I recall my own development, I can see how I went through periods where my ability to focus inward and do complex calculations in my mind developed rapidly. When that happened, my ability to solve complex technical or mathematical problems increased, but I withdrew from other people. Later, there were periods where my ability to turn toward other people and the world increased by leaps and bounds. At those times, my intense powers of focused reasoning seemed to diminish...Some of my designs were true master pieces of economy and functionality...And today I don't understand them at all... Those designs were the fruit of a part of my mind that is no longer with me. I will never invent circuits like that again.
Is price of being "normal" being unable to be a genius? Yet I know lots of very smart people who are far from having Asperger's. The one thing that they have in common with Robison's description is that they have to be inward focus in order to be creative and to produce. I certainly find that even the presence of another person (unless it's another photographer intent on his own work) when I am engaged in photography makes it harder for me to concentrate and do creative work. Similarly, many writers call writing a lonely task. If that's the case, then perhaps Asperger's is just a more intensely focused version of what we find in routine geniuses.

The lessons in this book are important: Robison points out over and over again that his technical skill was not as important as the people skills that are valued in large organizations. He got less and less happy as he was moved away from creative engineering pursuits into management, until he eventually quit his job as a director of R&D to become a car mechanic. He laments over and over again that his inability to read people leaves him blind to opportunities that exist, as well as dangerous situations in the office. His description of how an executive took credit for his work reminds me very much of this recent thread on quora.

Finally his section on marriage and his relationship with his wife is hilarious. He calls his wife "Unit 2" for instance, since she was the middle of 3 sisters, and has a brilliantly logical view of mate selection that does eventually come to the conclusion that it's too complicated for him to figure out.

All in all, this book was engaging, entertaining, and I think should be on the "must-read" list for any engineer and their significant others. Recommended.
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