This is a story I’ve occasionally told various friends when one of the subjects it touches comes up. I told it again last night, and it occurred to me that I ought to put in the blog. It’s about how, if you want to have productive insights, you need a certain kind of nerve or self-belief.
Many years ago – possibly as far back as the late 80s – I happened across a film of a roomful of Sufi dervishes performing a mystical/devotional exercise called “dhikr”. The film was very old, grainy B&W footage from the early 20th century. It showed a roomful of bearded, turbaned, be-robed men swaying, spinning, and chanting. Some were gazing at bright objects that might have been lamps, or polished metal or jewelry reflecting other lamps – it wasn’t easy to tell from the footage.
I can’t find the footage I saw, but the flavor was a bit like this. No unison movement in what I saw, though – individuals doing different things and ignoring each other, more inward-focused.
The text accompanying the film explained that the intention of “dhikr” is to shut out the imperfect sensory world so the dervish can focus on the pure and holy name of Allah. “Right,” I thought, already having had quite a bit of experience as an experimental mystic myself, “I get this. In Zen language, they’re shutting down the drunken monkeys. Autohypnosis inducing a serene mind, nothing surprising here.”
But there was something else. Something about the induction methods they were using. It all seemed oddly familiar, more than it ought to. I had seen behaviors like this before somewhere, from people who weren’t wearing pre-Kemalist Turkish garb. I watched the film…and it hit me. This was exactly like watching a roomful of people with serious autism!
The rocking. The droning. The fixated behavior, or in the Sufi case the behavior designed to induce fixation. Which immediately led to the next question: why? I think the least hypothesis in cases where you observe parallel behaviors is that they have parallel causation. We know what the Sufis tell us about what they’re doing; might it tell us what the autists are doing what they’re doing?
The Sufis are trying to shut out sense data. What if the autists are too? That would imply that the autists live in a state of what is, for them, perpetual sensory overload. Their dhikr-like behaviors are a coping mechanism, an attempt to turn down the gain on their sensors so they can have some peace inside their own skulls.
The first applications of nerve I want to talk about here are (a) the nerve to believe that autistic behaviors have an explanation more interesting than “uhhh…those people are randomly broken”, and (b) the nerve to believe that you can apply a heuristic like “parallel behavior, parallel causes” to humans when you picked it up from animal ethology.
Insights need creativity and mental flexibility, but they also need you to keep your nerve. I think there are some very common forms of failing to keep your nerve that people who would like to have good and novel ideas self-sabotage with. One is “If that were true, somebody would have noticed it years ago”. Another is “Only certified specialists in X are likely to have good novel ideas about X, and I’m not a specialist in X, so it’s a bad risk to try following through.”
You, dear reader, are almost certainly browsing this blog because I’m pretty good at not falling victim to those, and duly became famous by having a few good ideas that I didn’t drop on the floor. However, in this case, I failed to keep my nerve in another bog-standard way: I believed an expert who said my idea was silly.
That was decades ago. Nowadays, the idea that autists have a sensory-overload problem is not even controversial – in fact it’s well integrated into therapeutic recommendations. I don’t know when that changed, because I haven’t followed autism research closely enough. Might even be the case that somewhere in the research literature, someone other than me has noticed the similarity between semi-compulsive autistic behaviors and Sufi dhikr, or other similar autohypnotic practices associated with mystical schools.
But I got there before the experts did. And dropped the idea because my nerve failed.
Now, it can be argued that there were good reasons for me not to have pursued it. Getting a real hearing for a heterodox idea is difficult in fields where the experts all have their own theories they’re heavily invested in, and success is unlikely enough that perhaps it wasn’t an efficient use of my time to try. That’s a sad reason, but in principle a sound one.
But losing my nerve because an expert laughed at me, that was not sound. I think I wouldn’t make that mistake today; I’m tougher and more confident than I used to be, in part because I’ve had “crazy” ideas that I’ve lived to see become everyone’s conventional wisdom.
You can read this as a variation on a theme I developed in Eric and the Quantum Experts: A Cautionary Tale. But it bears repeating. If you want to be successfully creative, your insights need you to keep your nerve.