I’ve got some thoughts about information processing that I’d like to get down. This is more of a musing than a piece of advice or a concept, and what you’re about to read is my personal model for how this stuff works. I’m not claiming that this is, like, objectively correct or anything — but there are some things I’ve noticed about how I process information, and there are things I’ve noticed about how others process information, and these are not the same — so let’s explore that!
Towards A Taxonomy of Knowledge
Let’s start by defining some terms. I’m interested in the following three ideas, which often get conflated into a single thing if we’re not careful. But it’s useful to pay attention to the ways that data, information and meaning are different.
First, data is a signal sent by our senses. It’s our visual signal, our audio signal, our emotional signal, etc — it often manifests as an experienced sensation in the body. Data itself means nothing until it’s processed — think about how folks who grow up dissociated from their emotions develop alexithymia. We call that the inability to name emotions, but in a way it’s the inability to process sense data.
So what does it mean to process data? We process data by converting it into information. Information is contextualized data — it’s when we connect our physical sensations with claims about reality. If the data is “I’m shivering” then the information might be “I’m cold” or it might be “I’m scared” or it might mean “I have a neurological condition that causes shivering”. We can’t know in advance — that’s why the processing step is important. Note that processing data doesn’t necessarily come naturally — people with alexithymia don’t know how to process certain kinds of data, and have to learn to first feel the sensations in their body and then to map those to lived experiences to generate information.
But information alone isn’t enough to act on, because we don’t live in a world of information — we live in a world of stories. Humans are fundamentally narrative animals. There’s a third part of processing: it’s the conversion of information into meaning. We do this by telling a story about how the information fits into the larger story of our lives. The above example might be “I’m shivering because I’m cold because the seasons have passed and now it’s winter and I need to dress more warmly”, or it might be “I’m shivering because I’m terrified of the person I’m next to”.
It’s my hypothesis that Autistic people and Allistic people have significantly diverging approaches to information processing, and that these differences can explain some Autistic traits.
When a non-autistic person receives some data it seems to be relatively easy for them to process it into information. Sense data, emotion data, social data, whatever — Allistic people rapidly consume data and turn it into information.
But they seem to be able to do this quickly because their information is much more shallow than autistic information is; they don’t fully connect the new information to a single giant graph of every other piece of information they’ve ever been exposed to, they just receive a new truth and add it to a list of things they know.
When it comes time to extract meaning from that information it’s a bit of a process for them; they have to study hard, memorize things, focus on certain key details, etc. They don’t automatically have a meaning graph from their information stack. The stories that they’re able to tell are constrained by the complexity they’re able to consciously manage.
This is why to Autistic thinkers Allistic folks can seem short-sighted and narrow-minded, and why Autstic people can strike Allistic people as unnecessarily slow and bogged down in details; when we receive data we act on it a bit differently. We fully integrate it.
By contrast to the Allistic approach, Autistic people sometimes struggle to convert data into information. We’ve often got a bad case of alexithymia to work through (it can be worked through — I think of it more as a form of illiteracy than its own innate disorder) and that limits the sources of data we have access to.
We may not understand emotional feelings in the body — a tight stomach could just indicate a tight stomach to us, not the feeling of anxiety that’s driving it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t understand any data. We can still process sense data like everyone else, right?
Well, sort of. Autistic folks often have sensory processing disorder, which interferes with this process. Some sounds are way too loud, or way too quiet; sometimes we don’t notice things touching our skin until it hurts; everyone is different, and that’s why there’s no general way to teach Autistic Information Processing; we each have to kinda piece together our own relationship to our senses.
We also frequently get delayed processing speed; I can hear just fine, but I will not understand what you said the first time you say it. I will ask “What?” and then finish processing your first sentence as you’re repeating it. Why is that?
My hypothesis is that when we do convert data to information we do so much more deeply than Allistic people do. I feel like I am walking around with a huge interconnected graph of everything I’ve ever learned, and every time I receive a new piece of information I slot it into that graph. There may be 20 connections to it — this takes time. It’s why I’m a bit slower when it comes to consuming information sometimes.
But once that data has been converted into information I have way, way more stories I can tell because that data is nested so richly against all the other data in my head. Converting data to meaning, for me, is almost instant. It’s almost like the meaning already exists in the graph structure, so by turning data into information I’m almost intrinsically turning it into meaning on the fly. If I want richer, more novel meaning? I just walk that graph farther out into details that seem increasingly unrelated but which I can easily tie back to the core thesis.
This means I am able to respond very quickly to questions with answers that nobody else expects. I don’t have to study, I don’t have to pay special attention to certain facts — I just have a whole mental model of reality in my head, and I break off a piece and hand it to you when you want to know something. This is a powerful gift.
Does This Ring True?
I’m really curious as to whether or not other Autistic people relate to this model. If you’re autistic (or even if you’re not and just have thoughts) please leave a comment below sharing your perspective on this. To me it’s got a lot of explanatory power and generally seems to fit my observations, but it also smacks of a “just so” story so I want to be careful.