There is always danger in over-generalizing, but I am supportive of Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory about autistic traits as expressions of an extreme male brain. Before you recoil in consternation, give his opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences a good read. In short, his argument is that autism traits reflect a relative weighting between an empathizing and systemizing.
I suspect you have less of a feel for what Baron-Cohen means by systemizing than by empathizing. He describes systemizing (or “systemising”, as the Brits spell it) as the drive to analyze the variables in a system, deriving the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. Systemizing also refers to the drive to construct systems. Systemizing allows you to predict the behavior of a system. In other words, systemizing is a preoccupation with patterns, rules, and order that feeds off of regularity and predictability of structures that provides a sense of control. This is in contrast with empathizing, which is a predilection toward sharing the mind and interests of others, intuitively grasping their needs and factoring in their attitudes and vicissitudes.
All this came to mind as we were preparing for our just-completed move, relocating back from Englewood to Fair Lawn to the spanking new Promenade, just down the road from our office. I hadn’t dug into the recesses of hiding spaces for awhile that revealed some of my boyhood hobbies.
1) Philately. Otherwise known as stamp collecting. Ah, my first album.
All the rules for beginners are contained on the inside cover. Stamp types: imperforated vs. perforated vs. rouletted. Paper type and color: wove vs. laid vs. pelure vs. silk vs. surface colored vs. chalky or coated. Watermarks. Stamp features and types: grills, errors/inverts, tete beche, and so on. Nor do you ever forget your first influences or mentors, in my case Manfried Mauskopf who introduced me to the nuances of stamp collecting.
2) Numismatism. Otherwise known as coin collecting. Ah, my first booklets.
It was Sol Hasiuk, another of my father’s friends, who introduced me to the joys of coin collecting. More rules, more regularity – with the notion that rarities and irregularities were worth a great deal, and could only be conceived if one could recognize patterns of worth. What made one coin more valuable than the next? Both coins and stamps were almost entirely based on visual features.
3) Baseballcardality. Of course I made that up, as there is no obscure word I know for what was an obsession at one time – collecting of baseball cards. Whereas stamp and coin collecting were largely individual ventures, tailor-made for systemizing, baseball cards began a bridge between abstract symbols and concepts and real people you could go to a stadium and watch play. Nevertheless it was largely about visual patterns, and what made each year’s issues unique. The reverse side of the card was all about numbers, stats, and performance patterns.
Consider how this might play into other interests and pursuits, such as musical instruments usually played in isolation as opposed to group ventures. For example, piano is relatively solitary in contrast with guitar. But our main interest is in the predominantly visual. Come to think of it, whether or not Baron-Cohen is over-generalizing, the visual pattern obsession of systemizing does seem to feed into a form of self-rapture if not isolationism – being into the self of course one of the hallmark traits of autism which literally means selfism. Hence the significance of an important early transition — a child’s emergence into hobbies or interests that feed off social interaction. It is a transition from indulging in the delights of one’s own mind and visuality to discovering alongside, and engaging in the interests of others. As with most things in life, a delicate balance.