What’s Your Specialist Mind?

on Mar 27, 2011

People’s brains are wired up in different ways. And while we like to think that we’re each unique in our own ways, there are actual patterns to the manners by which our minds are wired up and we see specific talents arise in individuals. A few examples include folks that can:

  • take apart and put together anything
  • play back music by ear
  • draw incredibly well
  • handle complex numbers in their heads
  • craft together anything
  • pick up languages with ease
  • be super coordinated in athletic activities
  • talk to anyone and pretty much get along with everybody

It seems that we’re genetically programmed to have a mind specialized in something or another and that this specialization is a more innate and natural ability. However, no mind can have it all – there’s always a tradeoff in ability. This should sound familiar – in a couple of  posts inspired by Temple Grandin’s TED Talk, I discussed how many specialist abilities, which I deemed technical abilities, come at the expense of natural social ability (this may very well relate to the autistic/asperger’s spectrum) and the technical talents can prove rather advantageous under certain situations. In the many months since reading Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, I’ve noticed how her insights appear in scores of people. Particularly interesting are her classifications of specialist minds: the visual mind, the math/music (pattern) mind, and the verbal logic (language) mind (p. 28). These classifications are good but they are meant to describe autistic specialists rather than more normal people. Below are her classifications with my modified definitions*, based on what I’ve noticed of people of these minds.

Visual Mind

People with this type of mind think in pictures, like Temple Grandin, and are just very visual in general. They’re likely doodlers and tend to be artsy. Some can only visualize still images, though in great detail while others can effortlessly run full 3D virtual simulations in their heads. I’m confident that, at least in the case of the latter, they also have a strong spatial sense and are well coordinated in that regard.

Pattern Mind

Individuals with this mind find correlations between things and are very good at math. Much of what they see in the world is based on patterns and I would go as far to say that some may even think in mathematical terms. These folks are very good at putting together ideas and running logistical matters. Some of these individuals may also be very musically talented, or at least interested.

Language Mind

These are people of the word. They can easily pick up new languages and writing comes naturally to them. Unsurprisingly, they’re avid readers and seem very broadly interested in things like history and world matters.

Economic Mind

(This one isn’t part of Grandin’s original classifications so I’m not sure if it deserves its own category as it might fold into the pattern mind)

These individuals are hyper-rational and extremely good at evaluating cost-benefit scenarios with no involvement of emotions. They read and understand the fine print and are extremely difficult to dupe. Instead, they’re very good at taking advantage of any system to their benefit. Accountant-type folks fall into this category. Maybe lawyers too.

Mixed Specialties

While I described these minds as separate entities, it doesn’t have to be the case. There are people that have combinations of these types of minds and it may be the more prevalent case among specialist minds. For example, it appears that a combination of the visual and pattern minds make for some incredible engineering skills. The pattern mind allows one to put different things together while the visual mind allows one to see this in his head. This works well since much engineering requires one to build something virtually before doing so physically.

Social Mind

(not “specialist” but still special)

Grandin describes the other types of minds as specialist minds because they represent a more technical sophistication and because they seem less prevalent in the population. Still, I believe there’s much to like in having the social mind – and it’s likely a reason why it has evolved to become so prevalent. Individuals with this type of mind can naturally get along with others and are social butterflies. They thrive on interaction with others and are always up to head to the parties and clubs. They naturally understand social etiquette and are the ones that can help maintain social order with that human touch.

So yes, we are unique, but unique in particular ways that predict a medley of traits and abilities. Our minds are incredible technologies and it’s essential to understand the special power contained in each of our minds. With that, we can not only grow to embrace our talents and minimize the tradeoffs, but also understand the abilities in those all around us. More on that soon.

* In some ways, these mind classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The components of these specialist minds can be broken up and folded together in different ways. In fact, such classifications, such as the theory of multiple intelligences, have been discussed for decades. Still, I feel the organization provided by Grandin does a very good job of handling the correlations between different subspecialties.

On Being a Leader: It’s All About Delegation

on Aug 31, 2010

I learned a lot about what makes for a good leader at a recent large inline skating event. I had volunteered to lead one of the skating events for the Big Apple Roll, which entailed getting 75 skaters safely through 20 miles of NYC streets. A seasoned skate leader planned the route for me and offered me pointers along the way, but keeping everything together rested primarily on my ability to delegate smaller tasks to others – it’s clear that this skill is necessarily in any leader.

To explain why, let’s start with a different kind of skating group – one with just a handful of similarly skilled skaters. In this case, everyone can simply follow the guy in front. This “leader” doesn’t need to do much more than follow the route and turn around on occasion to make sure everyone is still there. In essence, that’s not much leading; each person is fine with just following the “leader” (I should note that this leader still has the important task of selecting a safe route and pace). Now contrast this to a much larger group with skaters of varying skills; things are different. The leader has to make sure that skaters know where to turn and keep them on route. This becomes difficult as the group of skaters will inevitably become spread out among several blocks (many more when there’s 75 skaters). The leader must also make sure skaters remain courteous to pedestrians and cars. At this point it’s clear that more than one person is needed to coordinate this sort of effort. It’s here that a leader’s purpose becomes obvious; for his task is coordinating the coordinators – delegation.

The coordinators would each have a set of smaller, manageable tasks. In the case of this skating event, they had to stay in the front with the leader (me) and be ready to mark any turns when I requested them to do so, and stay there until the last skater passed by (which was another coordinator assigned to sweep). These team members also had to keep skaters from taking over the entire road or crosswalks. So a crucial part of the leader’s job is to select coordinators capable of handling the subtasks (and of course knowing what subtasks are required). I had to pick a team of volunteers that I could trust to do the job, without the need to watch over them. In the end, the responsibility rests on the leader. If any single member of his team fails to deliver, it’s still the leader’s fault for not selecting someone capable enough.

The skate event I lead was a successful one and everyone thanked me for it afterwards. Still, the thanks should go to the whole group of volunteers. They were capable, responsible, and enthusiastic in helping out me and the rest of the skating community.

There were two lessons learned on leading: First, that a leader serves to coordinate others when a task is too big to handle alone. And second, that those selected by the leader are picked for specific abilities and should work to live up to those expectations. Although I learned these lessons through involvement in the inline skating community, it’s clear that they apply everywhere, from political offices to workplaces.

Special thanks to Leo for planning the route, sweeping, and giving me guidance throughout this skating event. Also thanks to the skate volunteers that helped out on this event! Lastly, thanks to everyone else on this skating event for supporting the adventure!

What Does Your Brain Think In? Words? Pictures? Motions?

on May 3, 2010

In an earlier post, I discussed how there appeared to be a tradeoff between social skills and other abilities, and how this was a consequence of people having different kinds of minds, as Temple Grandin described in her TED talk. Temple also discusses how people differ in the internal mechanism by which they process and understand the world. For her own self, she described how she thought in pictures and how that gave her the ability run like virtual simulation models in her head. While these were some pretty extraordinary capabilities, she experienced tradeoffs – for example, she was terrible at algebra, a more abstract discipline.

At the same time, we see that some people think more verbally (in fact, there was strong myth that language was essential for complex thought – the myth led to prejudice of deaf people). These people are probably very good at expressing themselves and communicating in general. They may very well be the more social (and perhaps less geeky) type.

Coming back to thinking in ways beyond language: consider non-human animals. They most certainly don’t think in words, but they have their own extraordinary capabilities. Temple Grandin gives an example of the dog sniffing the fire hydrant – he knows who was there, when, and what to make of that information. Or consider a cheetah running across the plains at 60mph, amazingly avoiding rocks and controlling movement masterfully.

For many years, I’ve deeply thought about the way my own mind processes the world. I know for sure that I don’t quite think in words. It’s as if my mind interprets things in some higher-level manner and puts together a model like a puzzle. While this means I have a really powerful and deep way to understand things, I’m left with great difficulty to explain what’s on my mind. I can’t easily put the model or thoughts into words.

This thinking style – modeling – might give clues to a connection with cheetah example. Friends know me as being outrageous when it comes to physical activity. [I don’t mean to gloat but] I’m considered an incredible inline skater and fantastic martial artist. Fellow skaters and and martial artists are impressed with the technical sophistication behind my activity. They say that I make it look so simple and easy, though they understand the sheer complexity behind my abilities. This is very much the same skillfulness of a non-human animals’ physical prowess. Interestingly enough, when I’m learning a new martial arts technique or sequence, I need to build a mental model before trying it out. If I don’t have this opportunity (it does take a bit more time), I fail terribly at executing the move. However, if I can put it together in my head, it comes out beautifully.

Is my style of processing the world, seemingly by feel, its own category; something more kinesthetic? Or is it just another manner of visual thinking as Temple Grandin discusses? I’m inclined to think it’s more a form of the latter since visual thinking also entails motion. Either way, I know what my advantage is so I leverage that to learn better. I avoid getting frustrated in the beginning because I understand the need to get a model down.

This virtual modeling thinking works beyond physical activity. It is in a way an engineering mind because it allows one to build something mentally before building it for real. This could account for my infatuation of creating things, between computer programs to theories of human behavior. As great as this is, it does come with tradeoffs, often involving communication or social skills. It’s important to understand that no mind can have it all. Acknowledge the weaknesses and manage them. More on that in a future post.

There’s still so much to ponder regarding the mechanisms by which our minds work. Still, it seems things are becoming clearer and are mapping onto the real world. The unique abilities of different minds are a strong asset when working together.

The Financial Crisis and How We Understand How Things Work

on Mar 3, 2010

The 2008 financial crisis was especially rough because it was so unexpected. This fact raises a couple of interesting points. One is that those within the industry that understood what was really going on were keeping mum as it was in their interest to do so. The other is that so many of our economics experts and whatnot didn’t see this coming. This latter point tells us a lot about how we understand how stuff works.

There are two approaches to understand how any part of the world works. The initial and more accessible manner is to discern patterns from observations without necessarily having an understanding of the underlying mechanisms. This was pretty much the only way humans made sense of the world for most of history. This top-down approach is quick and dirty – immediately useful – and a required process to eventually, if ever, build another method of understanding how something works.

The bottom-up approach is to understand basic mechanisms and build more complex mechanisms from more simpler ones. This approach is very powerful because it works on a system of rules which allows us to make testable predictions. Empirical data, instead of coloring the model, determines whether or not the rules (and their predictions) are valid. This is actually another way of expressing the scientific process.

So a top-down understanding of the workings of a car could mean that you understand that the pedals and steering control the motion of the vehicle and that it requires gasoline to run. This is sufficient knowledge to operate the vehicle. But this doesn’t help you if you’re car begins to malfunction. A bottom-up understanding of machinery inside a car would aid greatly in this case. However, for the sake of efficiency, most of us put trust in specialists that understand cars (auto mechanics) so that we don’t need this knowledge ourselves. Which is fine for this circumstance.

How does this work for understanding something complicated than a car, like the economic system? Surely we have specialists (the “experts” I mentioned in the first paragraph) but what is their approach? For most economists (if not all) it is top-down. They build models from empirical data (and they really do an incredible job of gathering this data). Their models are probably generally accurate but not all the time. The financial meltdown is a very clear, and costly, example of when it is not. So what happened? Well, because top-down understanding is built from empirical data, it possesses the danger of being colored by the data. Over time, the model is tweaked to fit new information, which can bring about even greater surprise if it’s wrong.

So what would be a bottom-up understanding of economics? It’s most certainly difficult to approach it this way; it’s doable though. Since economics is really just social exchange between humans, we can determine a good theory of it if we understand human social behavior. I’ll be sure to discuss this in a future post.

As for our approaches in understanding how things work: each method has its strengths and weaknesses. We should use the top-down approach whenever it is sufficient, as it is very sleek. But we should be mindful of when its disadvantages may spell trouble. Otherwise, a bottom-up approach, if available, proves to be essential.

Democratic Government?

on Jan 13, 2010

(democratic in the sense of the principle, as opposed to the political party)

The purpose of a democratic government, such as that of the United States, is to represent the interests of the citizens – the population at large. Just as each individual specializes in some field be it engineering or plumbing, politicians [supposedly] specialize in standing for the interests of the people they are the proxy for. This government is also [supposedly] funded by the people through tax dollars.

Yet the government doesn’t always have its heart in our interests. They instead often hold up the interests of industries: like the corn industry or the pharmaceutical industry. This occurs because these industry aligns its interests with those of politicians. Industries provide funding to politicians. Also, lobbyists for industries fill political positions and vice versa, going back and forth. Clearly we have conflict of interest issues and the interests of the American people are disregarded.

This isn’t the fault of any single entity. Each actor must do what is best to survive. The ones that don’t get replaced by the ones that support this improper system. The system requires overhaul and it appears that some of the current political powers are making progress on this end.

I’ll post more regarding this topic in the future.

How else does the government not live up to the ideals of democracy?