On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking, Part 1: Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Thinking

Autism can be understood as a style of thinking.

Styles of thinking occur along a continuum. At the center of the two extremes are top-down and bottom-up thinking. In fact, these are not the most extreme forms of thinking, but we must first establish the norm of each before we can understand the extremes of each.

Top-down thinkers tend to see the big picture first. They start with the answer. The end goal is identified, and then ways to get there are investigated. To flip the old cliché, you see the forest, but not the trees. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a top-down thinker will get a handful of data before developing the ideas, theory, hypothesis, then proceed to try to find ways to prove that theory, as proving the theory is the end goal. Of course, data may not prove the theory, in which case one then posits a different theory. The more top-down a thinker is, the less data is needed to develop an idea, etc., or to prove (or, indeed, disprove) a theory to them, which makes the process faster; however, this means they are more likely they are to engage in confirmation bias. Such thinkers are strategic thinkers.

Bottom-up thinkers tend to see the parts first. There is no clear end goal identified; the process itself is sufficient, and the end will be reached when you get there. These are the people who sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Or, specifically, they need to have a sufficient number of trees in order to agree that what we have here is in fact a forest. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a bottom-up thinker will collect copious amounts of data, work out the patterns within the data set, then develop the idea, etc. from the identified patterns. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more data is needed before they are comfortable developing an idea, etc., but as a result they are very likely to be quite confident in their idea, etc. However, sufficient contradictory data will in fact change their minds, especially after they figure out how to fit the new data in with the old data. Such thinkers are analytical thinkers.

Now please note that these are general patterns. The fact that one is generally a bottom-up thinker does not mean they cannot engage (or learn to engage) in top-down thinking. Or vice versa. However, the more extreme one’s natural thinking process is, the less likely one is going to learn (or learn well) how to engage in the other kind of thinking.

Also, one may note that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. If you need to strategize, you need to engage in top-down thinking. If you need to come up with a solution quickly, you need to engage in top-down thinking. However, if you need to do a careful analysis, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking. If you want to understand patterns, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking.

I will also note that both styles of thinking also match the two general patterns of network architecture: top-down, hierarchical networks and bottom-up, scale-free networks. Top-down networks require step-by-step organization. You start at the top and you add things over time to create the network. The most efficient way is to create a hierarchy. Our organizations, including our firms, are so structured. However, bottom-up networks self-organize as the parts interact with each other. Things aren’t added; rather, patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts already there. As a result, you get a scale-free architecture following power law distributions of links.

I would further argue that those who primarily engage in top-down thinking are going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, top-down hierarchical networks, or organizations. Those who primarily engage in bottom-up thinking are, thus, going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, bottom-up hierarchical networks, or spontaneous orders. As a result, one would predict that the more top-down a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view — you will be more likely to support policies that will create more hierarchical organizations and which will organize the world from the top-down. Equally, one would predict that the more bottom-up a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view — you will be more likely to support policies that will create decentralized networks and reduce hierarchy.

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Pattern Thinking and the Autistic Mind

I am a pattern thinker. And a bit of an image-thinker. These are two very common ways of thinking for those on the autism spectrum. Neurotypical people typically think in words, meaning their thinking doesn’t have to be translated for them to communicate their thoughts. Autistics have to translate thoughts into words, which is why we are sometimes a bit slower with our language, a bit slower to respond.

It’s probably not too hard to imagine what it means to be an image-thinker. After all, “image” is part of the word “imagine.” But it’s quite another thing to have your thinking dominated by images, to have a series of images pop into your mind–and not just abstract images, but very specific, concrete images of things you’ve seen. When I go to remember something I’ve read, it’s not uncommon for me to literally see the page on which the sentence I wish to remember was written. As a result, when I go to look up a quote, I can almost always immediately find what I’m looking for, since I see the page in my mind.

Less easy to understand is pattern thinking. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how pattern thinking works, but I was fortunate enough to feel an insight coming on recently, and so I sort of observed what was happening when the pattern thinking insight occurred.

Basically, pattern thinking occurs when you have a great deal of information about a great many things in your head, and then you read just the right piece of information that ties it all together, that provides the insight–a tipping point is reached–and then you are bombarded by example after example after example of things that fit that pattern. In my case, I write them down, because when that occurs, I typically have an academic paper or even a book in mind. My book, Diaphysics, is full of examples of my pattern thinking at work, finding deep patterns others haven’t seen before (but confirm that, once I point the patterns out, they seem obvious).

It may not surprise anyone that I also think in words. I am a poet, after all. But even with my poetry, sometimes it’s the image which comes first. When I write a play, I can see the stage and the props and the actors as I write. And I mean that I can see them as though they were right in front of me. At the same time, as a poet and playwright who writes using regular rhythms and often uses rhyme, I also bring in my pattern thinking and use it for my writing.

In addition to all of this, I am also a bottom-down thinker rather than a top-down thinker, but that’s a post (actually two) for the future.

My Short-Term Amnesia, My Excellent Long-Term Memory

The way my memory works is very odd.

I have a terrible short-term memory. I cannot remember what someone just told me — whether in person or on the phone. Especially on the phone. Anna is always asking me what I talked about when I talked with my brother or father on the phone, but I can honestly rarely remember. At least, so long as I’m being asked what we talked about. If I am given some time, I can slowly recall everything we discussed, usually remembering things in an associative way. Immediate recall of new information is just not going to happen. But I may remember it at some random time a few days later.

I have an extremely hard time remembering names. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that I have a hard time paying close attention to people, including new people. It takes most of the semester to learn my students’ names.

Yet, I have excellent long-term memory. I can remember almost everything I have ever learned. Most of the time, though, it has to be recalled in the moment. I am full of trivial knowledge that I will recall immediately on a trigger — some information about some band when I hear the band on the radio. for example. If I am allowed to then engage in associative recall, I can really impress you with what I know. But if I am asked to recall certain things, it can sometimes be a real effort. Of course, it can also sometimes be very easy, depending on how recently I may have thought about that issue or topic.

I am also much better at remembering things about objects and ideas than I am at remembering things about people, including my own autobiography. But I remember much I studied when I was obsessed with dinosaurs (when I was 5-8), sharks (8-11), or orchids (12-16).

I remember pretty much anything I found immediately interesting, no matter how trivial, no matter if I was obsessed with that topic at that time.

More, when I learn a topic, I also learn how to think about that topic. When I became interested in molecular biology, I thought like a molecular biologist. When I became interested in economics, I learned to think like an economist (and I have had plenty of professional economists tell me I think like one). I also think like a poet, a storyteller, a playwright, a philosopher, an organic chemist, and a complexity scientist. I have little doubt that it is because of my prodigious long-term memory that I can see the patterns amongst a great many things. My mind is always comparing and associating. It is always thinking, and it has a great many things about which to think, thanks to that memory.

I also have a very good working memory — I can hold a great many things in my mind and manipulate them and compare them. I once had an engineer who was shocked at the number of variables I could work with at one time — after which, he started to show a little more respect for humanities scholarship. No doubt this good working memory also helps me to see patterns.

So I have a terrible short-term memory. I can memorize things if I want, so my short-term memory seems fine. But remembering things for a short period of time — even over the medium term — is extremely difficult for me. This created a great deal of frustration for my wife, who could not understand how I could remember so many things, and couldn’t remember what she just told me. Of course, many people take that as “you’re just not listening to me.” No, I was listening. It just didn’t hold over the medium term. But it’s not impossible that I’ll remember it in a few days. Of course, if you needed me to remember it today or tomorrow, that doesn’t really help anyone.

Bottom-Up Thinking In the Autistic Brain

I recently read The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin. It is a fascinating book that really draws your attention to what is known and what is unknown about autism — and some of the problems with autism research that are caused by the fact that most researchers into autism are not themselves autistic, and the fact that there is a strong bias against self-reports, meaning there is too much focus on external expressions and not enough on what someone with autism is experiencing. It seems odd that autism research is, in this sense, a final holdout of behaviorism.

It should not be surprising that Grandin, being autistic herself, focuses on how autistics experience the world. But she also points out that autistics think about the world in a different way. Specifically, she notes that neurotypicals think in a top-down fashion (big picture before details), while autistics think in a bottom-up fashion (details before big picture). This has an interesting result. This means that neurotypicals tend to develop ideas from fewer sources, then take that theory and go back to the facts, where as autistics collect far more details and develop a theory from the details, from the facts. This also, coincidentally, is what allows autistics to see and understand patterns better and in more detail.

Also, this bottom-up thinking might help autistics to understand bottom-up processes better. By bottom-up processes, I am talking about self-organizing scale-free network processes like economies and other social systems, developmental biology, ecosystems, etc. They are created by having more and more things interacting with each other. Which is much the same way that bottom-up thinking works. Which brings us to issues of epistemology, specifically how concepts are formed..

With top-down thinkers, one needs very few examples of something to create a concept. If you see two or three cats, that can be enough to develop the concept of cat. However, bottom-up thinkers require many more examples before the concept is fully developed. Ten, fifty, or a hundred cats may be required. But once that concept is formed, it is well-formed. This can of course create problems with language acquisition, insofar as there is a correlation between words and things, actions, and qualities in the world. But it can also prevent one from developing new ideas before the situation is fully understood — a quality that could come in quite helpful if you are a scientist, for example.

It is also likely true that a more bottom-up, pattern-based thinker is going to see and understand bottom-up processes with complex patterns better than neurotypicals, meaning they will tend to understand spontaneous orders in general better than neurotypicals.This is because similar complex systems better model each other. Top-down thinking views the social world as hierarchical organizations; bottom-up thinking views the social world as spontaneous orders; the former thus make for better business people, while the latter make for better economists.

5 Deficiencies of Non-Autistic People

According to the Autism Quotient (AQ) scale, which goes from 1 to 50, 16 is your typical neurotypical, and you likely have autism if you score above a 32. 26-31 is the “Asperger’s” range. I have taken the AQ test a few times, and I score around 35. My early speaking, though, means I have Asperger’s rather than autism (though the DSM-5 codes it all as autism). If you have an AQ of 1-25, you do not have autism.

Since the majority of people are low AQ, they are the ones who get to define good and bad, normal and abnormal, special and deficient. But let me provide you with another perspective.

To me, people with low AQ are really deficient in the general ways in which they think. Sure, I understand there are a number of strengths that come along with having a low AQ—it’s easier to be social, due to the existence of social instincts weak or missing in us with high AQ; it’s easier and natural to look people in the eye; it’s easier to change your mind; etc.—but let’s be honest about the fact that there are a number of clear deficiencies in low AQ thinking.

  1. People with low AQ waste a lot of time and breath on small talk.

They rarely have anything interesting to say. Perhaps this is because low AQ people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things and trying to figure things out. Two or three data points, and we have a conclusion! Hardly. We have the first of a dozen errors and false leads. This is fine in the physical sciences, where experimentation will prove you wrong, but it’s proven disastrous in the social sciences. In the meantime, a high AQ person will have looked at a hundred data points before coming to a conclusion—but you can go to the bank with it.

  1. As a result of the above, low AQ people have a tendency to be really certain about things when they have very little to go on.

A correlation of this is that they seem to think controlling complex processes is possible. High AQ people are never completely certain of anything, but when we do express certainty, it’s because we have researched the topic in great depth. At the same time, that certainty does not extend to a belief that we can control complex processes. It is part of our understanding to understand that that is impossible. But this is only true among those who study complex processes. Sadly, those not obsessed with this topic continue to believe nonsense about someone, somewhere, at least, being able to control them.

  1. Low AQ people are obsessed with superficialities.

There are so many things that do not matter in the least that low AQ people obsess over. Many mountains are made of many, many molehills. Outcomes don’t seem to matter compared to fitting a number of criteria while doing what you’re doing. For example, when it comes to teaching, what is more important? Students learning? Or my teaching style? I would consider outcomes more important than how I look doing it, but that is apparently not what matters most to low AQ people—at least, based on their actions. And I tend to look at people’s actions. Indeed, I tend to look at outcomes over intentions. But good intentions seem good enough for most low AQ people. I, rather, care that intentions and outcomes match.

  1. Low AQ people are too obsessed with hierarchy.

The worst are those who most protest hierarchy. They are the same people who support the growth of bureaucracy. And I really don’t understand what the obsession is with bureaucracy. It’s nothing more than the institutionalization of responsibility-avoidance. It’s primary function is to prevent anyone getting any work done.

  1. Hypocrisy is a standard way of thinking and behaving for low AQ people.

Does everyone really have to be a hypocrite for there to be strong social bonds? I suppose one does if one gets offended at any sort of criticism rather than taking criticism as an opportunity to grow. Taking offense seems to be the favored pastime of low AQ people of late, too. Not much offends me.

My point in writing this post is to point out that autism should not be understood as a deficiency that happens to have some gifts associated with it. Rather, autism is, in many ways, a different—and often opposite—style of thinking from low AQ people’s thinking. Those styles are genetically encoded and environmentally affected, and each can, to a limited degree, learn the strengths of the other. But people with high AQs are in many ways no more deficient than are people with low AQs—the deficiencies are merely different, just as the abilities are different. This hardly means there aren’t high AQ people who have severe disabilities, of course. But in contemporary American society, many of our differences are made disabilities. And it’s important to understand both that and the fact that many of our strengths are your weaknesses. But this only becomes clear if you view things from our point of view.

Learning to Act Human, Part II

After I learned my son had autism, I learned that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and so I have actually taken it upon myself to read some things that might help me.

One book I have come across is the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplaces Survival Guide. The first page and a half pretty much described my work history: problems keeping a job over the long term, problems with the fact that I actually want to get my work done and don’t want to be bothered with all this nonsense that seems to fill the work day and prevents me from getting anything done, problems with the fact that I’m not all that social, problems with the fact that (until I became aware of it) I would sometimes say inappropriate things. The author asks the question all of us on the spectrum ask: “What is more important: chatting in the lunch room or getting your work done?” People on the autism spectrum (apparently mistakenly) think it is the latter. Worse, those with AS can appear to be rude, hard to get along with, or bullheaded, when in fact none of these are true. Those with AS don’t have the same internal censors — we have to learn those. We are easy to get along with; we may just not understand social cues we haven’t consciously learned yet. We aren’t bullheaded; we are open-minded and adjust what we believe based on facts and information — we just insist you provide facts and information.

The book is all about helping those with AS understand what is expected of them, to learn how to navigate the workplace. One could ask, “Why is it I have to do all the adjusting?” Well, because the neurotypicals offer most of the jobs available. More, even if you are entrepreneurial, you will still have to interact with neurotypical people. At the same time, a very high percentage of people with AS have college degrees, including graduate degrees. Businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talent because they are excluding a lot of people just because they “don’t get along” with others — when in fact it’s not that they don’t get along, but rather that they just want to get their work done. Businesses are too often getting second best people because the first best don’t have great social skills. And — as I can certainly attest — those with AS are as a result misallocated human resources.

Another book I ran across is The Partner’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. I read the Foreword, and (though I subscribe to the Intense World Theory of AS and autism — at least for my son and me — rather than the less-competent-Theory-of-Mind model presented in the book) I recognized a great deal about me as a husband and father there. In short, everything I read about AS behavior and the social consequences of those behaviors has been a mirror. There is practically no doubt in my mind I have AS. It explains many of my actions, my thinking, my social interactions, my attitudes, etc. The good thing is that in knowing this about myself, I can actually know what to do to fit in better. I have done so over time as it is, without knowing I have AS. When people are bold enough (or asshole enough, depending on their attitudes) to point out my eyes won’t focus on them or that I primarily look at their mouths when I talk to them (leading me to working on looking people in the eyes — a real cognitive effort, I assure you) or that I cannot engage in small talk or that I sometimes say inappropriate things (which I have gotten much better about, being made conscious of it), I can change those things.

So now you know why I’ve acted weird around you, if you’ve ever gotten to interact with me personally. Just remember: if I’m working, for the love of God, don’t interrupt me! 🙂

When when Daniel was 5 and Dylan was still 2, I noticed something about the way each would eat.

When Daniel would eat, he would pile food on the spoon and then uses his hands to try to put the food in his mouth. He would also pick up food from off the plate. As a result, there was typically a big mess where he was eating. Rice is the worst. It gets scattered everywhere. And he loves rice.

When Dylan would eats, he would carefully stab the food with his fork or scoop up the food with his spoon. All in all, there is minimal mess.

Neither my wife nor I directly taught either child how to eat with a fork and spoon. And neither have most parents. Dylan learned how to eat mostly through trial and error — and observing others eat. He learned the proper way to eat because he has the instinct to copy what others are doing. To him, human actions have meaning. This is instinctual, so that when he copies what we are doing, meaning is immediately attributed to those copied actions.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not have a strong instinct to copy what others are doing. He does copy people, but his copying does not have social meaning, like Dylan’s copying does. It is social meaning which has to be taught to Daniel, and which his mother and I have to teach in regards to how Daniel feeds himself. In other words, we have to directly teach him how to eat with his spoon and fork and not to eat with his hands and make a big mess. This means repeatedly telling him how to eat properly, until he gets it.

Here is how to understand the difference. Dylan acquired his ability to eat properly because of his social instincts that allow him to copy our actions, which he sees as meaningful. Language is acquired the same way. We have a language instinct, but the specifics are acquired in context, which is where meaning is also acquired. Daniel, on the other hand, cannot acquire these social skills; rather, he has to learn them in a more direct fashion. Reading is learned the same way. There is no reading instinct on which to rapidly build one’s reading skills;l this is why learning how to read takes so long.

Now imagine that your social skills were more learned than acquired. That’s the situation with Daniel. That’s the situation with autism.

Coincidentally, Daniel is almost 8, and he still piles food on his spoon. But he’s at least a bit less messy.