Whom Does That Leave?

In the beginning there was autism, which we did not understand was a definite neurological issue. In those days we did not know this about schizophrenia either. Then there came Asperger’s Syndrome, which despite our later knowledge of brain-wiring faults, we have confused with being a nerd. By this I mean that introverted and intellectual behaviour, which has always been about half of the human repertoire, and perhaps the better half at that, will now get you called an Aspie. Do one of these self-testing things on the Intertoobes, and you will find that staying at home with a good book will get you stigmatised as mentally abnormal; you have to be a loud party animal, or else.

At the same time every second person seems now to have ADHD. They tell me that this is a neurological condition too, and can even be seen on fMRI. In that case I should like to know how it relates to the steep decline in the ability to pay attention to the three-dimensional world that is commonly blamed on smartphones. Has the world of the Internet, apps and social media mis-wired the brains of a generation to the extent that they can no longer handle any tasks other than preening, or should we be looking at new environmental toxins that dumb us down like lead in petrol used to?

Brain scans or no, I cannot shake the suspicion that those with a scientifically confirmable syndrome are far outnumbered by those who are merely continuing an ancient human tradition of not paying attention. And yet perhaps not quite so ancient after all. For at one time this habit would have been very vigorously selected against – those who did not pay attention to their surroundings would become something’s dinner. In our own society, there may still be evolutionary pressure against texting when crossing a busy road, but I do not really see any Darwinian penalty on not listening to others. Supposedly real-world interaction often resembles attempting to argue with a recorded message. I do not think one has to be especially curmudgeonly to recognise that this is now universal.

People now devote five per cent of their attention to the three-dimensional world and the people encountered therein, listening with half an ear, seeing with half an eye, and thinking with half a brain. If that. This they do for terror of missing something on the little screen that they have been taught is far more important than the person standing in front of them. This cannot be neurology, it is obviously acculturation, though one can see how it might suit the non-payers of attention to pretend otherwise.

The key here is to what extent a given neurological thingymajig is really suffered under and to what extent it functions as a permission for what everybody wants to do anyway. Whereas I cannot imagine anyone wanting to have OCD and wash the skin right off their hands, I find it all too easy indeed to imagine someone wanting permission not to pay attention. At any rate to the real live human being in front of them; it is funny how selective the Youth Of Today are, in that they have no problems with computer games and social media, only with being addressed by a meat person wanting some kind of service or cooperation. Meanwhile, why cannot I get traction for my own quite uncomfortable condition of PEIS, or Psychobabble Excuse Intolerance Syndrome?

Finally, I would point out a dilemma, almost a Catch-22. If people who fail to pay attention to the world around them are all deemed to be suffering from ADHD, while those who do pay attention to the world around them are all deemed to be suffering from Asperger’s, then what might a “neurotypical” actually look like, and what would she do with herself all day?

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 8, 2010)

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