The Pattern Seekers — Innovative Minds

When it comes to the science of innovation, one of the most interesting books is The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention (2020) by Simon Baron-Cohen, a famous autism researcher. Baron-Cohen divides people into systemizers and empathizers. He goes on to establish a connection between (hyper)systemizing brains and autism and inventions. In fact, It is likely that many geniuses from Newton to Einstein were on the spectrum. So are many people working in Silicon Valley nowadays.

Baron-Cohen writes that these pattern-seeking genes are ancient and date back at least to about 70.000 years. He is not in any way connected to the hunter-gatherer hypothesis, but this fact makes it clear that we are talking about ancient hunter-gatherer genes rather than genetic mutations that occurred due to adaptations to an agricultural lifestyle.

I have talked to many austistic people online about them having hunter minds. A lot of them are skeptic, because they can’t picture themselves as being able hunters as autism often comes with a host of other problems, such as clumsiness and anxiety. However, these problems have entirely different causes and are not related to a pattern-seeking mind per se. On the other hand, most autistic people will happily agree that the majority of innovative people were probably somewhat on the spectrum. Autistic people are generally great problem solvers, due to their systemizing minds. They are up to 40% faster than average at solving technical problems.

I have gotten the objection that farmer types should be better as early farmers had to use many more tools than hunter-gatherers. However, this misses the point. Farming skills are relatively easy whereas hunting takes many more years to learn. In fact, the best hunters aren’t young men, as might be expected, but older and more experienced men. Baron-Cohen tells a very impressive story about an autistic man that illustrates how a pattern seeking mind is helpful to hunters. Jonah is a young man, who loves observing patterns on the surface of the ocean. He is so good at “reading” these patterns that he can predict where the fishermen can find fish:

Often he says nothing and simply points. The fishermen have learned to trust him, and they throw their nets where he points. They still marvel at how easily Jonah spots patterns they miss. And they say his predictions are always right.

Even though Jonah is popular with the fishermen, he hasn’t made a single friend — like some many other autistic people:

“They like me because I show them where the fish are, but after the fishing trips they go to the pub, and I go home alone, and still live with my parents.”

Now it probably becomes easier to see how pattern-seeking minds can help hunters. It is not only about ripples in the ocean, but also about patterns in the sand, scents in the air, sounds in the forest and so on.

Baron-Cohen writes that contrary to hyper-systemizers, hyper-empathizers aren’t pattern seekers. However, in my experience this isn’t true. My oldest son is a hyper-empathizer and does have some autistic traits: he was hyperlexic as a toddler and finds it extremely hard to make friends. I was amazed at the patterns he discovered. Once sitting on a metal bench at an airport and suddenly he kept repeating the sound of the letter “O”. This is what he saw:

He was very systematic when learning something new. He would learn all the letters of several alphabets (English, Russian and Greek). When dinosaurs became his special interest, he learned the names of about 200 dinosaurs, including whether they were carnivores or herbivores. Despite being very bad at math and visual-spatial skills, he loves systemizing. The same is true for myself. I have always done poorly at mathematical and spatial problems, but my mind loves systemizing.

Systemizing is therefore not only likely a hunter trait, but also a gatherer trait, albeit in a different form. Gatherers need to know thousands of plant species and their properties, if they are edible or not, if the can be used as poison for killing animals, etc.

This pattern-seeking trait of hunter-gatherer minds is it that made hunter-gatherer types innovative in the western world. Hunter types were innovative in technology and science and gatherer types were innovative in the social domain, from the ancient art of storytelling to modern filmmaking.

Read more about hunter-gatherer minds in my book

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