In this post I’m going to do at least two things. One of those things will be to gather together and lightly compare some concepts which I’ve encountered in the past few years and which seem to bear some similarity to one another. While these ideas do not perfectly map onto the “nerd” stereotype, they all intersect with it, at any rate. Another of those things will be to discuss my own relationship with those concepts, mostly how I can (or can’t) understand myself in light of them. If I do a third thing, it will only emerge out of the other two: I might incidentally illuminate my understanding of the concepts better and maybe, just maybe, illuminate them better for you. Also, I will talk a little more about austim, though I hope you don’t take this to suggest an equivalency between being autistic and being a nerd.
(My apologies for any formatting errors in this post. I am working from my tablet and switching between unfamiliar, seemingly glitchy apps.)
Analytic Cognition and Social Cognition
Let’s begin with analytic cognition. I first encountered it through Connor Wood, who summarized some research on cognitive styles at Science and Religion. Wood describes two basic cognitive styles, identifiable both by brain scan (different areas light up) and by thought patterns: analytic or task-specific cognition prefers thinking about abstract casually-interdependent concepts while social or default cognition prefers thinking about interpersonal relationships and social norms. Only one cognitive style can be active at a time, so if you’re engaged in analytic cognition your social cognition will suffer, and vice versa. Furthermore, as much as everyone can switch between the two styles, a person who is good at one is usually (though not always) not so good at the other. This is construct has both a psychological and neurological component, in that it both describes certain kinds of cognition in abstracted terms and links them to certain regions in the brain. On the psychological side, there does not seem to be much reason for a person who is thinking systematically to therefore be less competent at thinking socially; the reason for this appears on the neurological side. When I first encountered Wood explaining these idea, he was using it to account for how rude and emotionally stitled Richard Dawkins and his ilk seems to be: because they think very analytically, it does not seem unlikely that their social cognition is comparatively weak.