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.
I don’t have the expertise I’d need to assess this construct on its merits, or the merits of the research that Wood summarised. I suppose I could attempt a literature review, but I have no access to a research library and it would therefore be difficult enough that I’d need a pretty compelling motive to try. Until I have such a motive, I’ll designate this as “interesting but uncertain,” and entertain the idea with that proviso. (Assume the same for all following constructs.)
When looking through items (in an inventory which I dimly remember but cannot now find) which typify these two types of cognition, I felt that I would likely be better at social cognition than analytic cognition, though I bristled a little at that. For instance, it’s true that I have little or no curiosity about certain systems listed, such as meteorology, and my aptitude at mathematics is no better than average. But this does not mean I have no interest in systems at all: my habit of collecting taxonomies of religions, or of trying to synthesize various schools of literary theory, suggests that I have some systematic intelligence. Meanwhile, I do not struggle with social interactions in a manner as exaggerated as the items implied, but perhaps I am overestimating my social graces, or underestimating those of the average person. My very unscientific impression is that I am above average (maybe only slightly above average, or maybe not) at analytic cognition and average (but no less than average) at social cognition. That seems unlikely, and arrogant, on the face of it; it is also my best honest assessment.
Integrity and Intimacy
The next of these constructs which I encountered was integrity versus intimacy. I already mentioned this in passing; I encountered this construct through Amod Lele’s Love of All Wisdom, who borrowed it from Thomas Kasulis, expanded it, and paired it with another measure. Lele characterizes philosophical traditions as tending toward either integrity or intimacy. Those traditions which tend toward integrity prefer analytical thinking, which breaks arguments or systems down into their components; indeed, demonstrative argument of any kind is more common to integrity traditions. Meanwhile, traditions which toward intimacy often replace arguments as we are used to them with extended descriptions of what the world looks like from the point of view of the claim being made; it is more holistic and experiential. In politics, integrity traditions focus on individuals while intimacy traditions focus on communities. Prominent integrity traditions include ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, classical Indian philosophy, and contemporary analytic philosophy, while prominent intimacy traditions include East Asian philosophy and possibly the Christian mystic tradition. (However, medieval Christianity’s heavy borrowing from the classical philosophers means that Christian theology tends somewhat toward integrity even while its mystics are much more intimacy-oriented.) That’s not to say that there aren’t integrity thinkers in East Asian philosophical traditions or that there aren’t intimacy thinkers in Classical Greek philosophy, but it has seemed as though particular kinds of thinkers more commonly emerged, and were more commonly disseminated and preserved, in each particular tradition.
I imagine you can already see the connection I noticed between intimacy and analytic cognition on the one hand, and integrity and social cognition on the other. One half of each pair relies on abstraction while the other privileges particular relationships. However, I think it is worth observing that while intimacy v. integrity might be useful in describing individuals (indeed, it must be), its primary purpose is to describe broader trends. Moreover, it describes philosophies, arguments, worldviews, cultures; it does not describe brain activity or cognitive styles.
In this construct, I feel comfortable placing myself in an integrity tradition and as an integrity thinker. I live in an integrity culture, of course, so that is expected; I don’t feel like an outlier in this culture, either. However, there are many people in our integrity culture who are nonetheless better at social cognition than they are at analytic cognition; does this mean that they are “really” intimacy-oriented?
Lele typically pairs intimacy v. integrity with another axis to create a Cartesian grid; although ascending v. descending is not analogous to analytic v. social, I want to mention it because it will come up later. Ascending traditions tend to be rational rather than empirical, otherworldly rather than this-worldly, and reductive rather than elaborative. Descending tradition take the opposite trait in each pair, typically being specific rather than general, particularizing rather than universalizing. Greek and Roman philosophy is integrity-oriented, just like contemporary analytic philosophy, but it was an ascending tradition while contemporary analytic philosophy, like contemporary Western society in general, is descending: Plato sought an abstract realm of metaphysical Forms, some highest truth, but we tend to seek concrete details about our reality. East Asian philosophy is also descending, but the Christian mystics are ascending: Confucius focused on specific family relationships while Christian mystics focus on their relationship with God, transcendent and eternal. I am perhaps more ascending than most of the people around me, but more descending than most of the religious people around me.
I first encountered the de-coupling construct much more recently, about a month ago. I initially encountered it in one of David Chapman’s Twitter threads; he got it from the blog drossbucket, who got it from Sarah Constantin. De-coupling is a specific cognitive ability or technique which allows you to isolate an idea or argument from its social, cultural, historical, and ethical associations in order to assess its logical coherence and consider what its implications might be. It’s what allows you (among other things) to suspend your disbelief about a widely discredited idea and consider it on its merits. De-coupling is a necessary cognitive tool in philosophy and science, and it has useful applications in politics, too. Not only is there evidence that some people are better at it than others, there is evidence that some people are more inclined to de-couple than others. Therefore we can speculate about a distinction between high de-couplers, who de-couple often and (presumably) well, and low de-couplers, who de-couple less often and (presumably) less well. High de-couplers are the stereotypical oblivious nerd; low de-couplers are the artists and poets.
You can perhaps see the analogy again: high de-couplers appear likely to be analytic and integrity thinkers, while low de-couplers appear likely to be social and intimacy thinkers. But I think it is important to stress, like before, that this is measuring a different phenomenon than the others measure. De-coupling is a sort of technique or cognitive tool, unlike analytic cognition (which is intended to indicate both a whole cognitive style and a difference in neurological activity) or integrity (which is intended to indicate broad trends in philosophical arguments, at least theoretically independent of cognitive tools, styles, or states which produced them). De-coupling might be related in some way to these other constructs, but it cannot simply be a reformulation of them.
But I have weak reasons to suspect the differences are greater than even that implies, though I admit these reasons are various shades of anecdotal. My best guess is that while I am a higher de-coupler than most of my fellow graduates from humanities programs, I am a much lower de-coupler than most STEM graduates. I think I am perfectly capable of de-coupling if it seems like it might be useful, and I can’t say that of everyone. But I almost always re-couple again afterwards—or anyway I think I do. I really can’t say that of high de-couplers. And yet I consider myself a pretty thoroughly integrity-oriented thinker. An integrity orientation does not seem to involve—or even require—an obliviousness to the cultural connotations of an argument in the way that high de-coupling does.
Also, I am not inclined to moralize about integrity v. intimacy, but I am inclined to moralize about de-coupling. In the broadest of strokes, high de-coupling is valuable to the activities required of philosophers and scientists and perhaps revolutionaries, but low de-coupling is valuable to the activities required of all people who live in community with others. We must all be citizens, cognizant of the social and cultural consequences of our actions and ideas, but we don’t all have to be scientists, willing and able to temporarily ignore an idea’s cultural connotations regardless of how urgent they seem.
I have no grand conclusion, but my suspicion for now is that these constructs aren’t quite describing the same thing, but rather that they are imperfect models of consequences of the same set of things. At any rate, trying to unify these ideas is not my goal in writing here. What I want to do is compare them with yet another concept I have been considering: the autism spectrum.
Lele explicitly suggests that autism would incline a person to an ascending-integrity orientation, and thinkers that we tend to suspect of being on the autism spectrum—Plato, Augustine, Kant—often prefer disembodied universalizing (so, ascending) and carefully argumentative, individuating (so, integrity) worldviews and beliefs. Chapman also speculated that high de-couplers are more likely to be autistic. The stereotype of the oblivious nerd, appropriate to high de-couplers, tends to overlap heavily with the stereotype of a person with high-functioning autism. I don’t recall Wood making any such comparisons, but I don’t think he has to: I would be surprised if you didn’t see a possible connection by now.
As I mentioned, I am seriously considering that I might be on the autism spectrum, specifically high-functioning autism. This is why I’m also trying to sort myself out in relationship with these measures. Unfortunately, as you can tell, I’m just not sure whether I’m (for example) a high de-coupler or a low de-coupler or somewhere in the middle; the last seems more likely, but also least helpful in figuring out my placement on the autism spectrum. Or, to put it another way, if I’m analyzing a particular interaction, it would be good to know if I can best explain it by saying, “I’m an analytic thinker,” or by saying, “I’m a high de-coupler,” or by saying, “I’m high-functioning autistic,” and to what extent each explanation implies the likelihood of another.
Perhaps this very mundane example will help. A friend and I, both graduate students pursuing a Masters of Arts in English literature (a low de-coupling discipline if there ever was one), walked into the department’s computer lab. My friend said, “It’s so hot in here!” I said, “It would be hot, because computers give off heat and there are a lot of them in a small space” or something to that effect. This seemed to me like the most natural possible response, but she looked at me like I had said something ridiculous and, if I recall correctly, called me a robot. According to another friend, the most natural possible response would be to commisserate and not to try to figure out why it was so hot.
What is the best way to explain this difference between my response and what is presumably the typical one? By appealing to analytic cognition? To de-coupling? Or to autism? I don’t remember what we were discussing when we entered the computer lab; perhaps it was something for which I had been using analytic cognition, and so when I heard this exclamation from her I responded with an analytic response and not with the social response I would have come out with if we had been discussing something which encouraged me to think socially. (Then again, it does not appear that she was using analytic cognition at that time, which you’d think she would be using if we had been discussing something which prompted me to use it.) And is this a fundamentally different explanation than saying that I was de-coupling at the time she made the comment, so I responded in a de-coupled way? I am not sure that integrity v. intimacy offers much of an explanation at all here, mostly because I do not think this friend is any less an integrity thinker than I am (but who knows? I am not trying to make windows into other folks’ souls here).
I think if I started the story by saying I was on the autism spectrum, many people would quickly attribute my response to autism, but I am not sure what that would quite mean, either: presumably the force of that explanation comes from some supposed symptom or consequence of autism—poor social intelligence?—which may or may not be true in my case and also may or may not be the very same thing that de-coupling or systems intelligence describes. If it is the same thing, then that’s the only explanation you need and you can leave autism out of it, unless you want to go further back and explain why I was de-coupling or using social intelligence or what have you.
Where this leaves me I don’t know. Probably you should advise me to stop trying to stretch these constructs, which have mediocre empirical support and less theoretical elaboration, beyond what they can reasonably be expected to do. (I am, of course, including autism itself among those constructs which require far more research to be properly understood.) Certainly I do not have the resources to do the research required to improve any of these ideas, even if I did feel like I could pinpoint their weaknesses. However, since these are the concepts I have, they are the ones I will play with for now.