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2006-08-22 @ 12:55 » Français

I just the other day finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, novel where the narrator-protagonist is an autistic 15-year-old (actually, Asperger syndrome). Quite good; reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye (without that whole killing John Lennon thing). Although it has its failings, I warmly recommend it. The author presents quite well an autistic point of view, especially with regards to information overload.

Which leads me to talk about filters. Perceptual ones, both biological and psychological. I make a distinction between what we could call “innate” filters, resulting from peculiarities of the nervous system, and those we put up ourselves as we grow up and old.

For instance, newborns can perceive the phonological subtleties of any language, even though there are more susceptible to those of their mother(‘s) tongue. As they grow up, they keep the phonological distinctions related to their language(s) (e.g. between [l] and [r] in English) and discard non relevant ones (e.g., between [q] and [k]) – of course, I’m simplifying a bit. After some time, some of these non distinctive features, like [l] and [r] is some Asiatic languages are no longer perceived. The ear might pick them up, but the brain doesn’t care. That is one of the filters we put up.

As an innate filter, we can take the case of colour-blindness: the individual is biologically incapable of seeing the difference between red and green.

Research shows that, for higher animals (like mammals) 15% to 20% of the population is more sensitive than the rest; their threshold for neurological activation is lower than in the majority of the population. These individuals are more alert, but also more easily overwhelmed. Higher sensibility doesn’t mean better perception: a highly sensitive person can be near-sighted; but thy perceive more, they process information more extensively and are more conscious of their environment, both internal and external. They have lower filters.

If this sensibility is cranked up a bit more, if filters are even lower, we get into Attention Deficit: everything is stimulating, at once, so it’s hard to focus on just one thing. Hyperactivity becomes here an externalisation reaction to this overload. There seems to be a nurturing factor whereby the child may not have acquired, through their environment, the means to put up necessary filters.

Next we come to the autism spectrum. Actually, there seems to be an inverse reaction to sensory overload than with ADHD: instead of externalisation, there is a falling back upon oneself to stop the stimuli. What’s more, some filters which help us acquire skills and knowledge (e.g. phonological or semantic filters) can be missing. Without filters, there is no discrimination possible. This is also true of social interaction.

It’s a bit like the Internet: the signal-to-noise ratio is very low; without filters (search engines, links, etc.), it’s hard to make sense of the huge amount of data. At the end of the autism spectrum, there are so few perceptual filters that it becomes impossible to be functional.

On the other end of the filter continuum, we have individuals with more filters, higher thresholds. What we call oblivious. People who coast through life note noticing anything. Colour-blind to people and their environment. The happy imbecile, in a way. This can reach sociopathy, where there is no conscience (or consciousness).

There is another type of obliviousness, an acquired one. Highly sensitive people who build up filters as a survival mechanism. Too many things are happening inside them for them to pay attention to outside cares, as outside stimuli are also overwhelming. The extreme would be the psychopath (or anti-social personality): doesn’t give a damn about others but is a skilled manipulator, as every little details of the other’s psyche is perceived.

Of course, all this is just a hypothesis; but isn’t it in the nature of blog to present half-baked ideas? Guess there’ll be more to come…

4 comments to “Filters”

  1. interesting, filters. Your post makes me think of filters on our consciousness that are socially imposed - like the general blindness most white people show toward their own privilege, for example, or not questioning what is presented to us as “truth” by our legal system, history books, politicians and governments, etc.

    I read this book sometime last year. I hated it. It drove me INSANE. I think it was indeed written well from the perspective of an autistic boy… point made. but it did indeed drive me totally nutso while reading it. I found myself frustrated and annoyed, my patience with the book ran very thin after a while. But I still wanted to know what happened to the dog! Then of course I felt horribly guilty, because what could that possibly mean in real life were I to interact with a real autistic person, yadda yadda. I’m sure I would show infinitely more sympathy and understanding to a real person, but the fictional character made me crazy.

  2. I can see how this book can drive someone insane. Of course, it’s not the same thing meeting a real person and being thrust in the shoes of a fictional one. I actually didn’t care much about who killed the dog. The perspective was what interested me. But, like I said, it has its failings; I personally could have done without the whole London thing.

  3. that’s about the point I got seriously frustrated. Normally, I would just put the book away and not give it any more thought. It was weird, I started reading it faster just to get through it! Like pulling off a band-aid or something.

  4. To come back to your first comment, it’s quite true that society imposes a number of filters. Just think of all those people who think “If it’s in the newspaper, it has to be true”.

What do you think?