Two weeks in my new town and I’m finally starting to orient myself geographically.
It takes me a good long while to get a feel for a new town or a new neighborhood or even a new Starbucks. It’ll be weeks or months before I stop asking The Scientist things like, “do I turn left here to get to the center of town?” and “which road goes to that grocery store I like?” If I’m driving alone, I rely on Waze for directions.
It’s not just my poor sense of direction that throws me off–though that’s a big part of it. It’s my difficulty with putting all of the elements together to see the big picture. In fact, The Scientist jokes about how ironic it is that I finally figured out not just the layout of our old town but all of the best shortcuts–just in time for moving away.
In the past, I knew to expect the disoriented feeling of being in a new place but I didn’t know why it happened. I think I’ve finally figured out the why, at least in part. It’s that big picture thing that autistic people are always being told we have so much trouble with. I learn a new place based on the individual parts of it that interest me most–the details–and it takes a long time to integrate those details into a functional whole that I can not only visualize but use to navigate.
Until that happens, I know where the grocery store that I like is and I know where Target is. I know that Route A takes me from my home to Target and Route B takes me from my home to the grocery store. But ask me to go from Target to the grocery store and I’m reaching for Waze. I struggle with visualizing how “home” and “Target” and “grocery store” are related to each other in the gestalt concept of “city.”
The first time I encountered the word gestalt was in a 300-level philosophy of sociology class that I probably had no right taking. Mostly what I remember is that it’s somehow related to verstehen (another word I couldn’t make heads nor tails of) and that heavy dudes like Weber and Simmel had a lot to say about it. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to write a blog post in which I’d have to explain gestalt versus detail-oriented thinking.
Fortunately, I found some online resources that make far more sense that my sociology textbook. The simplest meaning of gestalt is “unified whole.” As a theory of psychology, it refers to the mind’s tendency to organize a group of individual parts into a whole and to perceive that whole first or alongside the recognition of the individual parts. For example, when the brain sees a person, it recognizes “face” or “person” before it recognizes “blue eyes” and “hook nose” and “tall” or any of the other hundreds of individual details that make up the conceptual rendering of person or face.
Are you having a lightbulb moment here? Because I did. As I wrote that example, chosen seemingly at random, I realized that our tendency to focus on details first may be why so many of us are moderately to severely faceblind. Where typical people see “Joe’s face” we see a collection of individual parts: Joe’s black-rimmed glasses, Joe’s spikey blond hair, Joe’s acne scars. If those parts never quite assemble into a single concept of face, we’re left trying to recognize the most obvious details when we next meet Joe.
The same is true of places. Think about what you notice first when you walk into a new store or restaurant. Do you register gestalt concepts like ordering counter, bar, clothing department and checkout lines. Or do you first see details like bin of Easter candy on sale, menu board, employee stocking shelf, and people standing around drinking. I’m much more prone to seeing places as a bunch of individual details that I need to manually collate into bigger picture concepts like “menu board = ordering counter” and “Easter candy on sale = seasonal items = not what I came here for.”
Rather than a gestalt recognition of the whole before (or simultaneously with) the details, I register details first and the whole comes later, if at all. Because, I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I miss the gestalt entirely.
The Principles of Gestalt
Up to this point, the theory that autistic people are oriented more toward details and less toward gestalt makes sense to me. I can find an endless list of examples in my everyday life, from the way I copy drawings to how I approach statistical analysis projects. I’m all about the details. In fact, I excel at details.
But gestalt theory is also closely tied to pattern recognition and forming complex rules from simpler rules or patterns. That, in a nutshell, is how I make sense of life.
Looking at examples of gestalt principles, my brain does all of the things that it’s supposed to do–grouping objects by proximity and similarity, seeing whole objects that are formed by patterns of smaller objects. I don’t lack the ability to recognize the fundamental patterns. But what my brain does with those patterns is clearly different from what the average person’s brain does with them.
Other people see patterns of details and form abstract conceptual wholes; I see patterns of details and form more and more intricate sets of logical rules.
The Big Picture, Eventually
The Scientist has tried different ways of explaining how our new town fits together. He suggested I look at a map, which helps me conceptually but does nothing for me once I’m out on the road driving. Even if I know that Starbucks is south of my house, I have no idea whether than means I should turn right or left when I’m two intersections away from my driveway.
He’s explained multiple times how the major arteries connect to each other in relation to compass directions and major landmarks, which helps a little, but again, which turn do I take out of this rotary to get to the Town Hall? Until I connect all of my landmarks together and memorize the various routes and turns, the conceptual layout of the town–the geographical gestalt–doesn’t help me much. I’ll still go the wrong direction down Main Street every single time, thinking that my car is parked is to the left of the drug store or library or town hall when it’s actually parked to the right (or, you know, vice versa).
Like most other things in life, I learn the gestalt of a thing through direct experience. I have to do it, repeatedly, and then I’ll get it. No amount of conceptual understanding can make up for that.