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The Joy of Obsession, or Problem Solving as a Way of Life

Updated on November 29, 2014

Obsession is not a positive term in our culture. It’s the big O in the obsessive compulsive “disorder” that is so commonly diagnosed (and self-diagnosed) today. Obsession is popularly thought of as the psychological profile of an anal retentive, someone whose life is negatively affected by an neurotically controlling or meticulous personality. Or alternately, it is the unhealthy fixation of an otherwise “normal” person, a temporary madness that blinds its victim to the consequences of passion: an unhappy love affair, an addiction, a psychological symptom of a deeper problem. Obsession indicates loss of perspective; it implies the artificial reduction of life’s complexity to a narrow keyhole of fascinations. But maybe it’s not all bad.

There is another side to obsession, too. For me, it’s a way of life. As an adult on the autism spectrum, I have a very different take on obsession. I love my fixations, and I can’t imagine a world without them. Everyone obsesses at some time in their life, but being AS means moving from one obsession to another, and finding deep gratification from the detail and familiarity that comes from focused concentration on a single set of problems.

Life is rich and interesting when everything is a puzzle. Some puzzles are simple, everyday tasks like figuring out the most efficient way to get ready for work; other puzzles are multi-layered and contradictory, requiring years of thought and planning. From an AS point of view, there is no difference between the big and small; the larger questions don’t have any more inherent importance than the everyday problems, although sometimes they are more interesting. The key to obsession is finding the complexity in everything, even the simplest tasks, and this means paying attention to the details that are often smoothed over or generalized out of existence in our normal, Neuro-Typical world.

The Example of Temple Grandin

The animal scientist Temple Grandin has revolutionized the livestock industry by focusing on details that had been ignored. Grandin’s fascination with the way feedlots and slaughter houses were organized led her to a number of insights that have revolutionized the industry. Much has been made of her empathetic understanding of animal perception. I also recognize the obsessive problem solving that allowed her to see the livestock industry as a puzzle that needed deciphering. Moving cattle from one point to another may seem straightforward, but Grandin’s focused interest uncovered a number of small mistakes that had been built into the system of cattle management. The obsessive’s attention to detail makes all the difference in a project of this scale.

We need the kind of detailed approach that Grandin enacts. Our generalizations and unexamined assumptions need questioning, even though there is a strong disincentive to this kind of thinking in our Neuro-Typical world. As a young adult, I had a hard time paying attention to the generalizations. I loved the details, while the overall gist escaped me. Socializing was tricky because of the implicit expectation that you will hit the right register: not too much detail in your conversation, without going to the really big questions: everything should stay at a human scale; the problem was that I didn’t know what that scale was. In NT life, we demand that certain relations of scale are always maintained; the obsessive doesn’t understand this. From an AS perspective, there is no reason to assume that the piece of litter on the street is less significant than the car or the person walking with you. In life on the spectrum, the barometer that guides the sense of proportion in NT culture is missing, which means that the world is much more full of detail and sensation. Sometimes this is overwhelming, but it is always fascinating.

What Is Scale?

In my experience, there is a deeply embedded assumption that human dimensions comprise the normal scale of the world, and everything else is simply a larger or smaller version of the same world. The insect’s world is merely a miniature version of our same cosmos. We see this assumption all the time, in popular movies like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (a favorite from my generation), or in classic cinema, Attack of the (Add Your Favorite Animal Here). Resizing is a constant theme in our fiction, but it typically lacks the obsessive’s sense that details have a life of their own and a set of relations that must be respected. Temple Grandin’s ability to see things from the cattle’s point of view is a good example of this focus on scales outside the human norms, and all the benefits that come from this shift in our point of view.

Scaling is not an easy thing to describe, because it is usually quite foreign to an NT mode of thought. Imagine a large oak tree in a forest. Now think of all the creatures that live in and around that tree. The fox that burrows under the roots for protection and warmth doesn’t experience the same tree that the ants on the ground do, or the bird in the branches. For each of these animals, the tree is not a “tree” at all, but a set of relations specific to their territory and their needs. The problems these animals face, and the solutions they find, are specific to their scale. The obsessive has the ability to engage these problems without reducing them to human scale, because there is no reason to assume that one perspective is more valid than another.

The Microcosm

One of my favorite movies about scaling is Microcosmos, a film starring the insects living in a typical backyard. It is important that there are no humans, or even a voice over in this film. Instead, it uses music and cinematography to find the drama in apparently unimportant events like the birth of a mosquito or the mating of snails. The problems that these creatures are solving are not on a human scale, but to the obsessive they are still fascinating because they are brilliant solutions to complex problems.

Children understand this better than adults, and autistic children often carry these behaviors to an extreme degree. I used to spend whole days in my backyard without speaking to anyone, lost in my own thoughts and observing the differently scaled worlds around me. Indeed, it was too much, and I was frequently overwhelmed by the strangeness and intricacy of it all. As I grew older, and became more familiar with what NTs thought was important, I found the backyard less overwhelming, but still endlessly fascinating. My problem solving, obsessive interests were born from this movement between fascination and feeling overwhelmed.

As a young adult, I discovered something very important about scaling: there are small details at the human level that are overlooked for the same reason that different scales are invisible to the NT perspective. For most people, human events are so entrancing that the complex details that make up daily life are transparent. We look right through the functions of a dryer, a car, or a computer, whereas from an obsessive’s perspective each of these objects has a life of its own, with its own set of relations. For some on the spectrum, fixing a toaster oven is just as rewarding as having a conversation with a person. For me, a puzzle has its own intrinsic value, established by its own points of connection. Knowing what celebrities are up to, or which federal laws are being battled in the senate seems unexceptional and repetitively enclosed in a small world of concerns in comparison with the strange microcosms all around me.

Beyond Powers of Ten

One of the ways high functioning AS adults are different from AS children is that they have more ability to connect the small details to the larger picture. Temple Grandin’s insights into the way cattle perceive the world would be useless without her ability to associate this with the wider organizational scope of feedlots and slaughterhouses. There is a threshold of abstract thinking that has to be crossed before one understands the relationship between, for example, a local traffic jam and how traffic patterns work. After this threshold is reached, ideas like game theory, systems theory, and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze make a great deal of sense because they are describing a world of details and scaled perspectives. I look forward to a world in which the problems of transportation are resolved more cogently, but for that to happen, we need a more AS approach to the problem.

It’s important that some of the most significant theoretical developments of the past fifty years involve a way of thinking that is so powerfully conducive to an AS perspective. Autism spectrum is deeply shaped by the inborn sense that environment is reality. For children who develop “normally,” it seems that this environment is quickly abstracted into social relations and quarantined at the human scale of concerns. The “anti-social” dimension of childhood AS often emerges from this positive attraction toward details that others are ignoring, rather than a deficit. In other words, obsession does not always make room for human interests, and perhaps this is sometimes a good thing.

Problems cannot always be resolved at the human scale. We need a different attitude toward these problems, and here an AS perspective has a great deal to offer. An initial step in this process of introducing AS thought into our Neuro-Typical culture will be shifting our concept of scale. In 1977, Charles and Ray Eames made a now-famous short film called Powers of Ten, in which they begin at the human level and then zoom in and out by powers of ten to illustrate different relations of magnitude. This is an interesting film, but in the end, whether we are looking at cells or the solar system, the point of reference is still human. Everything is quantified with universal numbers that don’t have much to do with the specificity of scales that seem bend and warp time and space.

The Obsessive's World

From my AS perspective, the claim that we don’t think about the world outside our human scale is an empirical observation. We simply wouldn’t do many of the things we do if, as a culture, we were more interested in how things work at their own scale. A strong example of this is the insistence on standard measurements of time. Human life is measured by a system of time that has little to do with how creatures experience time. Coming back to the large oak tree in our earlier thought experiment, there are very different time-systems for the tree, the fox and the ant: they live and die at difference rates, grow and reproduce according to different temporalities. Understanding these different worlds entails a different approach to time in each case, an acceptance of different rates and speeds.

The world is a puzzle to me, and I deeply value that perspective. It is not a riddle in the way it is to a scientist, or a philosopher, however; it is a puzzle in its own right, without solution except for its own functionality. In my experience, people on the spectrum have an easier time accepting this surprising fact of existence, the insight that we are not, after all, at the center of anything. The obsessive takes this for granted in the pure intrigue of the problem he or she encounters. Perhaps, in this way, we need a little more obsession.


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