this is an excerpt from the first novel by Mark Haddon. he is fifteen years old. he is an autistic. he is 11th on the NY Times Bestsellers. he really gets inside my head. if you're interested in the life and times of an autistic, i have a new blog-smartretards.blogspot.com. i also highly recommend the current issue of Newsweek regarding autism.
AND ONE DAY Julie sat down at a desk next to me and put a tube of Smarties on the desk, and she said, “Christopher, what do you think is in here?”
And I said, “Smarties.”
Then she took the top off the Smarties tube and turned it upside down and a little red pencil came out and she laughed and I said, “It’s not Smarties, it’s a pencil.”
Then she put the little red pencil back inside the Smarties tube and put the top back on.
Then she said, “If your mummy came in now and we asked her what was inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say?” because I used to call Mother Mummy then, not Mother.
And I said, “A pencil.”
That was because when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds. And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. But I don’t find this difficult now. Because I decided that it was a kind of puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it.
It’s like computers. People think computers are different from people because they don’t have minds, even though, in the Turing test, computers can have conversations with people about the weather and wine and what Italy is like, and they can even tell jokes.
But the mind is just a complicated machine.
And when we look at things we think we’re just looking out of our eyes like we’re looking out of little windows and there’s a person inside our head, but we’re not. We’re looking at a screen inside our heads, like a computer screen.
And you can tell this because of an experiment which I saw on TV in a series called “How the Mind Works.” And in this experiment you put your head in a clamp and you look at a page of writing on a screen. And it looks like a normal page of writing and nothing is changing. But after a while, as your eye moves round the page, you realize that something is very strange because when you try to read a bit of the page you’ve read before it’s different.
And this is because when your eye flicks from one point to another you don’t see anything at all and you’re blind. And the flicks are called saccades. Because if you saw everything when your eye flicked from one point to another you’d feel giddy. And in the experiment there is a sensor which tells when your eye is flicking from one place to another, and when it’s doing this it changes some of the words on the page in a place where you’re not looking.
But you don’t notice that you’re blind during saccades because your brain fills in the screen in your head to make it seem like you’re looking out of two little windows in your head. And you don’t notice that words have changed on another part of the page because your mind fills in a picture of things you’re not looking at at that moment.
And people are different from animals because they can have pictures on the screens in their heads of things which they are not looking at. They can have pictures of someone in another room. Or they can have a picture of what is going to happen tomorrow. Or they can have pictures of themselves as an astronaut. Or they can have pictures of really big numbers. Or they can have pictures of Chains of Reasoning when they’re trying to work something out.
And that is why a dog can go to the vet and have a really big operation and have metal pins sticking out of its leg but if it sees a cat it forgets that it has pins sticking out of its leg and chases after the cat. But when a person has an operation it has a picture in its head of the hurt carrying on for months and months. And it has a picture of all the stitches in its leg and the broken bone and the pins and even if it sees a bus it has to catch it doesn’t run because it has a picture in its head of the bones crunching together and the stitches breaking and even more pain.
And that is why people think that computers don’t have minds, and why people think that their brains are special, and different from computers. Because people can see the screen inside their head and they think there is someone in their head sitting there looking at the screen, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” sitting in his captain’s seat looking at a big screen. And they think that this person is their special human mind, which is called a homunculus, which means a little man. And they think that computers don’t have this homunculus.
But this homunculus is just another picture on the screen in their heads. And when the homunculus is on the screen in their heads (because the person is thinking about the homunculus) there is another bit of the brain watching the screen. And when the person thinks about this part of the brain (the bit that is watching the homunculus on the screen) they put this bit of the brain on the screen and there is another bit of the brain watching the screen. But the brain doesn’t see this happen because it is like the eye flicking from one place to another and people are blind inside their heads when they do the changing from thinking about one thing to thinking about another.
And this is why people’s brains are like computers. And it’s not because they are special but because they have to keep turning off for fractions of a second while the screen changes. And because there is something they can’t see people think it has to be special, because people always think there is something special about what they can’t see, like the dark side of the moon, or the other side of a black hole, or in the dark when they wake up at night and they’re scared.
Also people think they’re not computers because they have feelings and computers don’t have feelings. But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry.
From “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, Copyright © 2003 by Mark Haddon. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.