Most people are almost blind

I’ve just read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I know, I know, you all read it two years ago, where have I been – well I meant to read it but didn’t get to it, but I spotted it at the library the other day and grabbed it.

Absolutely extraordinary novel. Shockingly readable, for one thing, in the way thrillers are supposed to be but mostly (for me) aren’t, and also fascinating in multiple ways.

Consider item (or entry or chapter) 181 for instance. It starts ‘I see everything’ then goes on to enumerate the detail with which Christopher does indeed see and notice, if not everything, at least a great deal more than non-autistic people do.

That is why I don’t like new places. If I am in a place I know, like home, or school, or the bus, or the shop, or the street, I have seen almost everything in it beforehand and all I have to do is look at the things that have changed or moved.

That’s a deeply interesting observation all by itself – and it’s just one piece of the four page entry.

But most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction, e.g., when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball. And the information in their head is really simple.

Then he describes what we see or notice if we’re in ‘the countryside,’ and it’s all generalities – grass, some cows, some flowers, a few clouds, a village, a fence; then he gives just a sample of the detail with which he sees the same thing. It’s fascinating because in one way (or perhaps several ways) our way is the ‘right’ way or at least better, and obviously so – just for one thing he doesn’t enjoy the process, it’s overwhelming; that is, as he says, why he doesn’t like new places. But in another way clearly he has a powerful ability that we just don’t have. We’re lazy. We don’t think of it that way of course, and rightly so, in a sense – we’re not lazy, we’re selective, and we need to be; most of the time we need to select out excess detail and just take in generalities. But – it is at least interesting to think of it as lazy.

Christopher concludes 181 with

And that is why I am good at chess and maths and logic, because most people are almost blind and they don’t see most things and there is lots of spare capacity in their heads and it is filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly, like ‘I’m worried that I might have left the gas cooker on.’

We’re lazy and we’re almost blind; we don’t see most things.

My first impulse when I read that was to think yes but our mental lives are much richer because our minds can wander and we can imagine and daydream. But then my second impulse was to second-guess that thought, to realize that yes that kind of mental life seems preferable and richer to us because that is the kind of mental life we have (and thus prefer); and Christopher does find much of the world intensely aversive. But all the same, it’s a trade-off. We’re not good at logic, which means we’re not good at various kinds of highly useful thinking.

My next thought was that probably many people think of other people who do value reason and logic as being like Christopher – skilled (if they are) but profoundly impoverished. Not that I didn’t know that, of course, it’s just that that passage is a brilliant illustration of it.

And the whole novel is full of things like that. That one is perhaps my favourite, but there are lots more. An amazing book.

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