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Book review: ‘The Pattern Seekers’ by Simon Baron-Cohen

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An expert on autism speculates that its characteristics may provide the key to human inventiveness.

‘The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention’ (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241242186) is one of the best popular science books I’ve ever read. It didn’t feel like that in the opening chapter though, in which Simon Baron-Cohen – a renowned British psychologist and director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre – tells the story of autistic boys Al and Jonah. Both were late to start speaking and had socialising problems, yet displayed an interest in technology that was unusual for their age, as well as a fascination with how things – cars, electric switches, washing machines – work.

Most of us will be familiar with the almost stereotypical portrait of the sort of autistic science or engineering genius mass-produced by Hollywood and such like, from Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Rain Man’ to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing. So, initially, I have to confess, the book did feel a bit like it was flogging a dead horse. Also, I have been somewhat wary of eulogising autistic people’s unbridled inventiveness and creativity since sharing a flat many years ago with a Polish professional carer who worked in a ‘posh’ London private school for severely autistic children. He used to come home covered with bruises and bites and would routinely lock himself in his room for several hours to unwind.

My perception of the book changed dramatically with Chapter Two, however, where Baron-Cohen introduces the concept of the systemising mechanism (“question, hypothesise, test and confirm, modify”), which evolved in the human brain nearly 100,000 years ago. In Baron-Cohen’s view, it is that peculiar way of thinking, unique to homo sapiens, that makes us look at the world not just as a combination of objects and events, but as a system, dominated by “if-and-then patterns” – similar to what has been known in Buddhism as a cause-and-effect phenomenon, or karma.

Baron-Cohen’s extensive research into autism has proved that moderately autistic people are much more inclined to think in those “if-and-then” patterns than those who are not autistic, but instead possess a higher emotional ability to sympathise (or emphasise) with other people and with what’s going on around them. It is that balance of empathy and the ability to systematise things that regulates our capacity to invent – or the lack of it. It is why autistic people, with all their unorthodox creativity, may at times appear selfish, indifferent and aloof, as if totally immersed in their own internal world.

Autism, according to Baron-Cohen, is a complicated psychological and psychiatric phenomenon, consisting of a whole spectrum of abilities, disabilities, talents and limitations. He tells the story of the Israeli Army’s Unit 9900, where only autistic people serve, and how the most is being made of their enhanced ability to analyse combat situations and their increased attention to detail.

The ability to “systemise” is not limited to humans. Some animals can do it too, but on a much lower level. Yet the main groundbreaking idea of ‘The Pattern Seekers’, to my mind, is the author’s claim that “the genes of autism drove the evolution of human invention”. No less!

If he is right here (and I believe that he is), and the ability to invent and to “patternise” (my own neologism) the world is indeed carried in our genes, then it effectively means that one has to be born a great inventor, or, say, a champion chess player, whose skills can be improved and developed, yes, but cannot be taught from scratch.

That conclusion alone is enough to justify a subtitle that might at first glance appear ambitious – ‘A New Theory of Human Invention’.

Another of Baron-Cohen’s pioneering observations is that autism – or the propensity for invention – is particularly widespread in modern technology hubs like Silicon Valley, or, say, Redmond, near Seattle, where autistic scientists freely mix with like-minded people, whom they often marry and whose children, in their turn, are much more likely to carry the same “genes of autism”, which may be the main drivers of the world’s technological and scientific progress.

Readers are sure to finish ‘The Pattern Seekers’ – a fluent and thoroughly structured work of popular science – with the desire to hear more about its subject. And ideally from the same writer.

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