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How to Harness the Curious Power of the Systemising Brain

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I went to see ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ recently and was blown away by the visual impact of a story I felt would be almost impossible to transfer from book to stage. But transfer it did, and in a spectacularly imaginative way, which gave real insight into a syndrome I have come across many times in my work as a psychotherapist and coach; Aspergers or autistic spectrum disorder, sometimes referred to as ‘systemising brain’.

I’ve written before about the systemising- empathising brain spectrum, highlighted by the work of Dr Simon Baron Cohen, and created a check list of indicators for clients who often want an explanation and a strategy, rather than a diagnosis.

‘Curious’ is all about Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy who describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’.

Christopher sees the world in a different way, without the instinctive ability most of us have to understand, say or do what is context-appropriate.

People on the autistic spectrum are often bombarded by too much incoming information, like a radio tuned into fifty stations at once, yet they can also describe themselves as living ‘behind a glass wall’ and strangely separate. Many report feeling ‘different’ or ‘like the whole world is in on some joke’ that they don’t get.

They notice fine detail. Christopher explains that when we are on a train and look out of the window, we might notice some cows in a field, but he will notice how many cows, what patterns they have, what proportion have different patterns, where they are standing, how many are sitting, the plastic bag in the hedgerow and the discarded cigarette packet on the grass plus a whole lot more.

Christopher is a literal, logical, linear thinker. When somebody kills a neighbour’s dog with a garden fork, he embarks on a Sherlock Holmes type investigation to find out who did it. His subsequent journey of discovery takes him to a dark place where he unearths new information which rocks his already unstable world.

Systemising strengths

A lot has been written about the negative impact of Aspergers, such as lack of empathy, emotional meltdown, quirky dress sense or geeky, super-focus.

Less has been written however, about the strengths of the systemising brain. Yet these are significant, and significant people throughout history have undoubtedly had systemising brain wiring, which has helped them to invent, innovate and create.

Bill Gates, Alfred Hitchcock, Jane Austin, Isaac Newton, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Darwin, Mozart, Michelangelo, Thomas Edison, George Orwell and Einstein have all been identified as probably being on the spectrum.

These highly creative people all had the ability to focus with great intensity on their chosen subject yet see innovative ideas, patterns and possibilities that would likely be missed by the rest of us.

As friends, partners or colleagues, systemisers are often intensely loyal. They follow the rules and have an immense sense of fair play and justice. Undoubtedly, for many on the spectrum, social skills present quite a challenge but, like all skills, these can be learned and improved.

Focusing in the positives

If you believe you may be a systemiser, whilst being aware of the challenges, concentrate on your strengths.

That sense of fair play will mean you are loyal at work. You may have exceptional talents for maths, computing, music, art or memorising.

You may be an intellectual and get intense pleasure from a subject or interest which you find totally absorbing and stimulating.

If tuning in to other people does not come naturally to you, you might be interested to know that this is something you can learn to do, either by experience of life and having to find a way which is comfortable for you, or by studying verbal and non verbal communication.

We are all born different.

It’s sensible to notice areas of challenge and wonder what you can do to improve things, but it’s equally important to notice your many gifts, talents and natural abilities.


Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.