The Pictures Are Better

The Pictures Are Better

There’s a well-known saying: “I prefer radio to television. The pictures are better.” I would say the same goes for reading, perhaps even more so. When I’m reading a book I am seeing the events unfold in front of my eyes, hearing them too – immersed in the world of the story. It’s so engrossing because it’s an active involvement – I’m creating the scenes, directing the action according to the script of the book. In contrast watching television is a very passive activity – just sit back and absorb somebody else’s vision. That is one reason I often find television to be far less engaging.

Don’t get me wrong – I watch some television, probably more sports and news than anything else. I watch movies and enjoy some of them, even those like Master and Commander where there is plenty of scope for disappointment because I’m familiar with the books on which they were based. I don’t much like going to the cinema – it’s because being in a strange environment among a crowd of unfamiliar people makes me uncomfortable, but I occasionally watch movies at home. Occasionally as in once or twice a month, if that. Reading, on the other hand, is something I do every day.

Opening a book is like opening a door to a different world, one where anything might be possible. Yes, it is blatant escapism – that’s rather the point of it for me. The real world is often badly-adjusted for my sensory and cognitive needs. But when I’m in one of the worlds that I enter through the pages of a book I am in full control of my experiences: I create – imagine – all the sensations I experience in there. I know it’s not real and that’s part of its attraction – I know there’s nothing in that world that can hurt me. Provoke various emotions, yes – excitement, pleasure, sadness, apprehension – but not actually hurt me. It’s a safe environment in which to feel those emotions.

As I read the story I progressively refine my mental image of the setting, starting with a fairly generic off-the-peg one and adding new details, altering existing ones, until what I have in mind meshes with my interpretation of the descriptions in the book. I borrow elements from the props cupboard of my existing memories, tweak them a little and introduce them to the building scene. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice in previous posts I have trouble when it comes to picturing faces. So the characters in my mental worlds are almost faceless – there’s no detail to their features. I don’t find this remarkable or unusual because I am exactly the same with my memories of people in real life.

If I make a conscious effort I can imagine facial details in isolation – like elements of a photo-fit that has been taken apart. A scar on a cheek, green eyes, aquiline nose, swarthy complexion – I can see each of them in turn but can’t fit them together to produce a single image of a face. I recall details of the faces of people I know in the same way – as collections of isolated features. But I can’t generally picture a complete visage. It’s as if the whole face is out of focus and the only way I can discern detail is to concentrate on just a part of it.

I find it ironic in a way – here I am with my wonderful visual mode of thinking and my almost-photographic memory of places I’ve been… and I can’t even clearly recall the faces of most of my work colleagues whom I see almost every day, let alone invent faces to populate the worlds of my books.

Fugue

Fugue

The morning mist leaves strings of pearls
That limn the hairlike strands of webs.
It slowly drifts across the fields,
A cloud whose wings were clipped.

Life has been stilled, there is no sound
To be heard through ethereal
Curtains of silvery-grey light.
Objects become dark ghosts.

I drift slowly in solitude,
As a boat upon still waters
Feels the draw of hidden currents
Beneath the calm surface.

With no destination in mind
And the passage of time deferred,
Existing in the mist of now,
Without future or past.

Concentration Flow

Concentration Flow

Just realised it’s been three days now since I ate any lunch. It’s not deliberate – I just don’t think about it at the appropriate time. At least I’ve been having one meal a day thanks to my wife who puts a dinner in front of me when I get home from work – if it wasn’t for that I’d probably not eat regularly at all. What it is – I get so absorbed in what I’m doing that I lose track of everything else and don’t notice little things like the time of day, thirst, hunger, a full bladder…

That’s one problem with the level of concentration I can sustain when engaged in one of my special interests, programming in particular: the world could end around me and I wouldn’t notice. I’ve even failed to hear a fire alarm on a couple of occasions because I’m in the zone and blocking out everything else. (The fire bell is about twenty feet from where I sit with no obstructions between it and me – it’s LOUD.)

The positive side is that this focused mental state (also called flow) is especially productive. It’s like strapping a rocket to my intellect and lighting the fuse – I see systems and patterns with crystal clarity and solutions to problems just arrive in my mind without conscious effort. It’s an exhilarating, euphoric experience: my mind running perfectly, like an engine at full revs with no noise or vibration.

This sustained high level of concentration and attention – the hyperfocus on a particular object or task is not just an Aspie trait although it is reportedly common. It is something that can be learned – most top sportsmen and -women train hard to develop this kind of focus because it helps them attain their best performances. But for me at least it seems to be an innate ability.

Some things will scupper it. I can’t focus on something while I’m depressed or anxious although physical pain doesn’t seem to get in the way. Indeed I don’t notice pain while in flow. But being involuntarily brought out of flow – certain stimuli will do this, such as touching me or putting something in my line of sight – is a jarring experience. I find it can stress me; even anger me, to be taken out of that state unexpectedly and that can be a barrier to getting my flow back.

Playing My Part

Playing My Part

You use your words as weapons,
Cut me deeper than a knife.
Though my blood remains unspilt
Still I feel the cuts as life
Spills out from my veins. I built
Such castles of hope this time,
But I built them on the sand.
Your attack will undermine
Them. No hope that they can stand
Against onslaught of that kind.
I will nurse my bleeding heart,
Lick my wounds and try to find
The resolve to play my part
On the stage within your mind.

Earth’s Child

Earth’s Child

One of my favourite memories is of a stone wall. Not just any stone wall but the one at the front of my neighbours’ cottages where I grew up. In fact stone fence might be a more accurate description: it was a row of upright stone slabs, made of locally-quarried sandstone as were the cottages themselves.

I remember the slabs well – not finely finished like tombstones but left a little rough and then weathered and rounded by the passage of about two hundred years. The raw sandy yellow of the freshly cut stone had long faded to a dull grey-brown supplemented by the green of moss and grey of lichen – it always felt as if the stone, once hewn from the parent rock, had been reclaimed and was once again a living part of the earth. They always had a softness to the touch – a complete contrast to the harsh, discordant roughness of brick and concrete. They truly felt organic, as if they had sprouted from the ground in that place. Being of natural material and standing in that place for so long they always felt to me as natural as the hills and woods.

As something is left to age in a place it acquires the character of its surroundings – hence the deliberate ageing of whisky. Eventually it becomes a part of its surroundings. I believe this used to be the case for people too, when they generally used to live out their lives within the community of their birth. There was a distinct local character (and often dialect) to each settlement and a sense of identity, of belonging. People within the area could tell in which village somebody had been born by their mannerisms and the way they spoke. But that was before industrialisation, before the growth of towns and mass migration, before the disruption and eventual destruction of those long-established communities, before everywhere became tainted by the homogenisation of modernity. Before we exchanged lives of hard toil driven by the natural rhythm of the seasons for lives of comparative ease driven by the clock on the wall.

We have lost our roots. We have severed the umbilicus that joined us to our mother. So many of us now think of ourselves as apart from the rest of nature. We think nothing of dividing the day into twenty-four hours and paying more heed to those numbers than to the rising and setting of the sun. Rain and snow are a nuisance. Insects are just pests. We expect the natural world to be as organised and sanitised as our constructed urban environments. We think of our lives as normal!

I’m not some Luddite advocating abandonment of technology – I appreciate and use advanced technology every day of my life. But I have not forgotten that I am just another animal on this planet, that I am part of the natural world. And if I did not feel part of nature I would not feel that I belonged – I would feel isolated, exposed, vulnerable, alone. But instead I am part of my environment. We have shaped each other over the years so that we now fit well together; I am just another part of the earth, one with the rocks and streams, wind and rain, plants and animals. As settled in my own surroundings as that old stone fence was.

Walking In My Shoes

Walking In My Shoes

I just read a post, On Sensory Empathy by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, that got me thinking: do people in general only consider the emotional aspect when they talk about empathy?

I believe that inferring another person’s emotional state based on what they say and how they act is the easy part – even I can do it to a certain extent. What is difficult is experiencing sensory stimuli as another person experiences them. When I listen to somebody speak I see a wonderfully rich progression of images – to a large extent my understanding of language is wired through the visual part of my brain. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not like watching video with the volume switched off – the images may be fleeting or they may persist, they may combine and evolve, they may be concrete or abstract. The images are the meaning to me – rather than going from sounds to words-and-phrases to meaning I go from sounds to word-and-phrase-images to meaning. How can somebody who experiences language in what I would consider to be a less rich manner ever properly understand – empathise with – my sensory experience?

And how could they understand the physical discomfort and pain that some stimuli can cause unless they can find some analogue, some equivalent within the realm of their own experience. I can tell people that I can’t stand to hear a certain sound, breaking glass for instance. They don’t know why I can’t stand it, how it feels for me to hear that sound. How it is physically painful because it overloads my senses – it is too intense. Note that I’m not saying too loud or too high-pitched – it’s too bright, like a sudden flash of direct sunlight into my eyes. Try to imagine seeing and hearing a bottle smash on the ground in front of you and – at the same time – it reflecting a flash of the full brightness of the midday sun into your eyes. You physically feel the force of it hit you like a wave. That is approximately how the sound feels. That is what I mean when I talk about it overloading my senses.

Can somebody who is not a visual thinker appreciate how I think about things? Can they develop a model – a theory – of my mind without having any experience of how it really works? I will admit that it is conceivable – after all I can imagine thought without pictures. I imagine it must be something like being blind. Other faculties would have to compensate. I have read that someone who is blind can still experience images in their mind, so I could reasonably expect them to be able to imagine having sight. But I wouldn’t expect it to be easy or necessarily accurate. In a similar way I do not expect non-visual people to be good at imagining what the world looks, feels and even sounds like to me.

I view neurotypical people in a more understanding way now that I realise this. I recognise that they often have talents in areas where I have trouble, especially when interacting with the average person in the street. They seem to be able to intuitively read other NT people’s emotions. But with me, and other people on the autistic spectrum, they seem a bit lost – a bit mind-blind. They don’t often react to us as if they properly understand what we are thinking or feeling – they have trouble with empathy. They don’t spot the signs when we are having trouble with sensory overstimulation and sometimes even add to the overload. But humans don’t come with a user’s manual to explain all this. I feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be open to the idea that there are people out there who experience the world in a different way: to be patient, understanding and to make allowances.

People Who Have Influenced My Life – Part 2

People Who Have Influenced My Life – Part 2

I only met him the once but I read his autobiography and thought, “I admire this man.” Jason Robinson, the rugby player of both codes, had anything but an easy upbringing and came so close to throwing away the opportunity his talent had brought him.
He had the good fortune to come under the influence of Va’aiga Tuigamala – a man with great moral character – in his early days at Wigan, and the good sense to heed his advice. He turned his life around, arrested the self-destructive spiral of decline and gained a sense of self-worth. This was primarily a result of his developing a strong faith under the wing of the older man.
I admire his courage in facing his painful past, admitting his failings and working so hard to be a positive role model both off the rugby pitch and on it. I met him at a training session at the height of his Rugby League playing career at Wigan, before he switched to Rugby Union and represented his country in that code as well. I remember him as quiet, serious, focused, calm and, more than anything else, modest. Not for him the arrogance and swagger of pride that can come with fame; he believed that the most important aspect of his own success was that it enabled him to help others.
In Jason Robinson I saw a selfless, generous man; one to be emulated, who showed that helping other people is worth far more than any amount of personal success.