First Sight and Inattentional Blindness

Last week, I read Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men, in which the young main character, Tiffany, is a budding witch. One of the main characteristics of being a witch, according to Pratchett’s rules, is the possession of First Sight. It is explained to Tiffany by a pictsy (not to be confused with a pixie) headwoman thus:

“…Ye have the First Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.”

“Don’t you mean second sight?” Tiffany asked. “Like people who can see ghosts and stuff?”

“Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there… Second sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see. Most bigjobs ha’ that…”

-Pratchett, 159

As it turns out, the pictsy woman was exactly correct about human perceptions. Shortly after I finished Wee Free Men, I started reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation at work. In her chapter about animal perception, she talks about inattentional blindness in humans. 

Being able to filter out distractions is a good thing; just ask anyone who can’t filter things out, like a person with [ADHD]. It’s hard for humans to function intellectually when every little sensory detail in their environment keeps hijacking their attention. You go into information overload.

But humans paid the price for developing the ability to filter out [distractions], which is that normal people can’t not filter out distractions. A normal brain automatically filters out irrelevant details, whether you want it to or not. You can’t just tell your brain: be sure and let me know if anything out of the ordinary pops up. It doesn’t work that way.

Autistic people and animals are different: we can’t filter stuff out. All the zillions and zillions of sensory details in the world come into our conscious awareness, and we get overwhelmed. There’s no way to know exactly how close an autistic person’s sensory perceptions are to an animal’s. There are probably some big differences, if only for the reason that animal perceptions are normal for animals, while autistic people’s perceptions are not normal for people.

But I think many or even most autistic people experience the world a lot the way animals experience the world: as a swirling mass of tiny details. We’re seeing, hearing, and feeling all the things no one else can.

-Grandin, 67

Or, in short, people literally cannot process seeing things they don’t expect to see, because their brains are filtering those things out as unimportant, extraneous, distracting minutiae. So, by this measure, does it mean that Pratchett’s witches all have autistic-like traits? Tiffany does note, at the end of the book, after a moment of true First Sight clarity, that it would be extremely difficult to live that way all the time, and is rather relieved when the clarity subsides to more manageable levels.

Wouldn’t it be handy if we could control our ability to see all the things that are there, though? Alas, so many things about our bodies are still out of our control. I suppose we can dream. There’s a reason such abilities are an often recurring theme in so many sci-fi and fantasy books.


8 Responses to First Sight and Inattentional Blindness

  1. TheGnat says:

    While I find it insteresting that humans do pretty much filter, and ADHD and Autistic spectrum disorders have something to do with an inability to filter, I’m always very wary of anything anyone says about autism (including autistics!). “Autism” as a diagnosis has only existed for about 50 years, and only in the last 30 or so has it been seperated from schizophrenia. It’s also clearly a spectrum, and since some of my favorite comic authors are diagnosed as autistic, I’ve discovered that the range of the disorder is probably enough to call for some seperation. For many it *does not* seem to be an issue of filtration, but rather of abstraction. For example, the author of simply cannot understand much of social behavior (lying, facial expressions, body language), but on the other hand doesn’t seem to notice more details than anyone else. So it always bothers me when someone mentions such a poorly and mis-understood disorder.

    *gets off soap box* On the other hand, it is always fun to play games with anyone who is less or more observant than oneself. Most people I know don’t notice half the things I do, but my fiance has ADD, and it’s an adventure just to follow his train of thought.

  2. Dana says:

    Gnat, have I mentioned that I work for the autism society, and all I do is read books about autism all day at work? Believe me, I’m quite well aware that autism is a spectrum. It’s actually one of my pet peeves about Temple Grandin, that she has issues with perspective-taking, and is thus quite prone to making sweeping statements about “all autistics” being like her. However, I need to read her books to be knowledgeable about our merchandise, so I can answer questions for customers.

    For more about the history of the autism diagnosis, check out Grinnell alum Roy Richard Grinker’s Unstrange Minds. While we may not know everything about autism by any means, we know a great deal more than we did even 20 years ago. It’s a world I’ve grown up in, given that my mom is an autism researcher, and it’s been quite interesting to see things progress from a semi-insider perspective. We know both so much and so little. I’m waiting for someone to figure out definitively that there are different kinds of autism with different etiologies. I don’t think I’ll hold my breath, though.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Sorry if I gave any offense. I know you work for the autism society, but not everyone knows much about autism, so what I said on the topic wasn’t really directed towards you as to other readers on the Buffet. I will defintely check out that book if it’s at my library (my library is pretty good, but it’s selection can be a bit bizarre). The author behind the link I gave has a bit of trouble with perspective, in the “I’m a very angry woman” kind of way.

    Do you ever wish you worked at a bookstore with a slightly more diverse range of topics? There have to be days when you’re sick of reading about autism. I know there are days when even I’m sick of Japan!

  4. Dana says:

    Do you ever wish you worked at a bookstore with a slightly more diverse range of topics?

    No, not really. I’ve been interested in autism for a long time, but was quite sick of higher academia, so this is an excellent way to learn more about an interesting topic while both getting paid and not having to do any homework. Plus, the job also appeals to that inner voice that thinks I need to be trying to help save the world, or at least make it a better place.

    There are certainly days when I wish I didn’t have to review the particular book I’m stuck with at the time, but eventually I do finish the boring books, and then I get to read interesting things. And the nice thing about not having homework is that I can actually follow up on other interests after work.

  5. Dana says:

    Gnat, first of all, I’m not trying to pick on you, but I’ve been thinking all day about why your initial comment struck me as so strange, and there are a few things I’d like to talk about. You said:

    I’m always very wary of anything anyone says about autism (including autistics!). “Autism” as a diagnosis has only existed for about 50 years, and only in the last 30 or so has it been seperated from schizophrenia.

    This makes it sound like you don’t think people have the authority yet to talk about autism because the diagnosis isn’t old enough. But don’t you think that people have been doing research into this “new” diagnosis in the last 50 years, and may well have come up with some definitive basic facts? Even older diagnoses have been undergoing significant refinement, and one of the points Grinker makes in his book is that really, all psychiatric diagnoses are young, because it wasn’t until the DSM-III came out in 1980 that all psychiatrists in the US even thought about using a standard set of criteria. In fact, those weren’t considered very well-defined standards, so it may be that we can’t even really consider the “real” diagnoses as having appeared until the DSM-III-R came out in 1987. And Asperger’s wasn’t a separate diagnosis until 1994. (There’s some of that spectrum separation for you. Throw in PDD-NOS, and there’s yet another. Not to mention high-functioning vs. low-functioning autism.) Certainly there are specialists and researchers out there doing the research to find out how to make the diagnoses more exact, but they are based on a set of underlying diagnostic criteria for pervasive developmental disorders that pretty much everyone agrees on.

    You also said:

    So it always bothers me when someone mentions such a poorly and mis-understood disorder.

    It is quite true that amongst the general public, autism is quite poorly understood. It doesn’t help to have “advocacy” groups running around calling autism an “epidemic” and blaming it on vaccines, either. But those are people on the fringes of the autism world. But there are any number of informed and informative sources of information about autism, and they have a great deal of scientific research backing them up. Though I didn’t bother to quote the earlier parts of Grandin’s chapter on perception, she did reference brain studies and other research that has been done in autistic populations to bolster her impression that people with autism and animals have some similarities in how they perceive the world.

    I’m certainly not saying that people know everything there is to know about autism. That is clearly not true, just as we don’t know everything about the neurotypical brain by a long shot, either. Nor do we know everything there is to know about much more “established” illnesses/disorders such as cancer or whatever, but that doesn’t mean we should discourage people from talking about them, simply because they don’t know everything yet. The misunderstandings about autism are only going to be lessened by more informed conversation, and the scientific pursuit of knowledge about the condition will only be expanded by the same. Even better if such conversation can become commonplace.

  6. TheGnat says:

    I’m not saying the medical community shouldn’t be talking about it, nor am I invalidating the diagnosis because it’s too young or some-such. It’s simply that when the word “autisim” gets thrown into any discussion that isn’t directly about autism, I get wary, because the diagnosis *has* been misused in the past, and the disorder *is* misused and abused in non-medical circles. Whereas, in the case of say “depression”, I’m less likely to think someone’s going to misuse it in a discussion.

    On a lighter note, I think Pratchett’s witches have ADD. And Vimes is probably some kind of psychopath, but we love him anyway. ^^

  7. […] vs. Verbal Ways of Thinking As I said a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation at work. And before some […]

  8. […] Animals in Translation-related entries are: * (4/17/07) First Sight and Inattentional Blindness * (5/14/07) Visual vs. Verbal Ways of […]

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