Another Roadside Distraction

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

By Wray Herbert

When Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page was in second grade, he and his classmates went on a field trip to Boston. They later wrote about the experience as a class assignment, and this is part of what the nine-year-old Page wrote:

"Well, we went to Boston, Massachusetts through the town of Warrenville, Connecticut on Route 44A. It was very pretty and there was a church that reminded me of pictures of Russia from our book that is published by Time-Life. We arrived in Boston at 9:17. At 11 we went on a big tour of Boston on Gray Line 43, made by the Superior Bus Company like School Bus Six, which goes down Hunting Lodge Road where Maria lives and then on to Separatist Road and then to South Eagleville before it comes to our school. We saw lots of good things like the Boston Massacre site. The tour ended at 1:05. Before I knew it we were going home. We went through Warrenville again but it was too dark to see much. A few days later it was Easter. We got a cuckoo clock."

Page received an unsatisfactory grade on his essay. What's more, his irate teacher scrawled in red across the top of the essay: “See me!” As he recalls in his new memoir Parallel Play, such incidents were not uncommon in his childhood, and he knew why he was being scolded: “I had noticed the wrong things.”

The subtitle of Page’s memoir is Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s, and indeed Page didn’t learn until age 46 that he suffers from what’s called an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. ASD is usually defined by impairments in social interaction and communication, but many people with autism and the milder Asberger’s syndrome also tend to fixate on irrelevant information in their world. Their attention seems to be awry or, to use Page’s words, they notice the wrong things.

But why? What’s going on in the autistic mind that makes the details of bus routes infinitely fascinating? Why are people like Page so easily distracted from the main act? Psychologists at University College London think that it might be a mistake to think of such distractibility as simply a deficit. To the contrary, Anna Remington and John Swettenham and colleagues speculate that people with ASD might have a greater than normal capacity for perception, so that what appears as irrelevant distraction is really a cognitive bonus. They decided to test the idea in the lab.

They studied a group of people with ASD, mostly Asperger’s, along with normal controls. They had all the subjects look at a computer screen, which displayed various combinations of letters and dots forming circles. They had to very rapidly spot the letters N or X among the other letters, and hit the corresponding key on the keyboard. Some of the circles—those with more letters—were more difficult to process than others. There were also other letters floating outside the circle, but the subjects were specifically instructed to ignore those letters. Those floating letters were the laboratory equivalent of an irrelevant distraction in the real world.

The psychologists were measuring perceptual capacity. That’s why they varied the complexity of the task. They were also measuring distractibility. They reasoned that, as long as the subjects’ total perceptual capacity was not exhausted, they would also process the irrelevant, distracting letters within their visual field. Once they had surpassed their capacity, irrelevant processing would stop. So if ASD subjects in fact have greater processing capacity, then they should process more distracting information even as the main task becomes increasingly complex.

And that’s exactly what they found. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, while there was no difference among subjects in either reaction time or accuracy on the main task, those with ASD processed the irrelevant letters while solving much more complex problems. Put another way, they weren’t ignoring the main task, nor were they distracted away from it. Instead, they were completing their important work and moving on, using their untapped capacity.

But here’s the rub. While this increased distractibility may be a talent rather than a deficit, the psychologists say, it nevertheless can have detrimental consequences in real-life situations. Just ask Tim Page about his uncanny facility for bus routes.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Selections from the “We’re Only Human” blog also appear regularly at and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 1:37 PM


At 10:29 PM , Blogger Babbett Ray said...

Funny how I knew this was written by an AS person way before it was revealed. My son has AS. The essay was classic.

At 8:34 AM , Blogger Blogger with Ocd said...

Very fascinating stuff!


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