The Social-Analytical Split
December 10, 2009 2 Comments
One of the challenges I have is that my brain seems to work differently from most other people in my field. A former boss could never understand why, when faced with some technical or quantitative issue, my first instinct wasn’t(as his is) to immediately reach for the phone and/or go engage someone else in a heated conversation about it. My answer: because I’m trying to think. The ‘social’ part of my brain is not the same as the ‘analytical’ part. As far as I can tell they are located on opposite sides of the hemisphere.
Unlike for some people, the part of my brain that thinks is a completely different part than the one that pays attention to other people. If I try to switch on the latter, the former will take a break. How can I think when I have to concentrate so much on this…this conversation? For me, people – paying attention to them, trying to respond to the things they say, trying to pick up on whatever nonverbal cues they’re giving off – get in the way of true thinking. Think of how you drive a car: your foot is either on the gas pedal or the brake pedal. Not both. That’s me. Telling me to go pay attention to some people is the worst possible thing you can do if you want me to actually solve the problem. I can do it but only by taking my foot off the gas pedal.
A related issue is that if I’m stuck talking to someone I might actually appear slow on the uptake to them. Like if they make some subtle mathematical point I can appear as if I “didn’t get” what was being said. In fact this may even actually be true. Later, of course, I will “get” it, when the person is gone and I no longer have to pay attention to them and I can re-engage the thinking part of my brain. But the part of my brain that can understand quantitative arguments is just not the same part of my brain as the one that I have to engage if I’m expected to participate in the give-and-take of a conservation. People who are not like this tend to assume that discussion and hashing things out is a great way to get to the answer and a great way for me to learn from others. In fact it’s a terrible way and I cannot learn anything this way; it’s just a waste of time because to truly learn anything I need to go off and think on my own.
As a side note, this is part of why I was always so irritated by the push there often seemed to be to shove ‘group learning’ down our throats in school. In fact, the standard orthodox school environment (attending a ‘class’, sitting and facing the front quietly, as the teacher instructs) was ideal for my sort of brain, the quasi-’social’ exception scenario that proves the rule. After all, although there was a person I was meant to be learning from, I didn’t have to keep up a conversation with him/her, most of the time I just needed to pay attention to and absorb what they were saying. This, I could do! But whenever they said ‘okay now let’s split up into groups’, or ‘called on’ me to state my thoughts at length…what a disaster. Given the way my brain works, this is like asking a left-hander to write right-handed, with the expectation that the penmanship should be just as good (and criticism if it isn’t!).
On the flip side, the web/blogs are ideal, because although they can be superficially ‘social’ situations, in actuality there’s really no other person there to pay attention to. I can just focus on the words and analysis of same, during which time I essentially forget temporarily that there’s another person on the other end somewhere.
It’s only in the past year or two that I’ve realized most people truly don’t understand any of this, it has never occurred to them that someone could have a social-analytical split to their brain. Indeed in my field it’s basically a handicap because talking a lot, getting into dialogues, and ‘asking a lot of good questions’ are all considered must-have skills. If you do these things you may be considered an up-and-comer. If you don’t you may be considered a nobody. So basically I have to fake it; whether I can pull it off remains to be seen.