On Neurodiversity, Category Theory, and The Discourse

On Neurodiversity, Category Theory, and The Discourse

I have recently discovered something important about me and how my mind works that feels like precisely the sort of thing that I should note. Maybe some day it will even be helpful to someone else in understanding me, someone they care for, or even their own self. It is a quirk of my brain that I think is likely due to me being a little spectrumy, but honestly, I don’t particularly want to get hung up on labels and categorizations here.

It is a stressor for me to not be learning and making meaningful improvement in my knowledge and my understanding of things/structures/concepts. If I’m not making substantial progress in my mental development, I start to feel negatively. It’s easier for me to be agitated. I feel slightly confused about every choice I encounter. I have a shorter fuse. I start to generally feel like I’m in some sort of funk. Allyson tells me that she is like this with social interactions with others. Learning, improving, and generally exploring complex mental topics are just as critical to my health as socializing is for many humans and other primates.

I have been stressed out a lot with work. I am struggling to fit into the role of “scrum master” for my team, focusing on removing “blockers” from my fellow developers to keep them able to code rather than coding myself. This change has added two independent stressors to my life that are pretty severe. Firstly, this role requires me to be more social than I naturally would like to be. I must be interruptable by my fellow devs at all times that I’m working because my job/role is primarily to assist them as efficiently as I can. I am not particularly adaptable in this way, and being adaptable in this way requires an awful lot of mental and emotional resources for me. Second, because I’m not programming, I’m not getting the opportunity to find novel ways to solve problems, and that also means that I'm also not learning new methods and concepts as often in the course of my work. The effect these stressors have on me doesn’t feel additive; it feels at least multiplicative if not exponential.

This week, I allowed myself to put down the meditation books I was reading and not enjoying, and I allowed myself to open Category Theory for Programmers by Bartosz Milewski, a book I bought months ago that has been taunting me from the top of my desk. Almost immediately upon cracking it open and reading the introduction, I started feeling less stressed. I felt substantially more “normal.” My stress was greatly reduced. This book was obviously a book that was going to challenge my thinking in a similar way to Capital, Volume 1 by Marx or even Haskell Programming from First Principles. Sure enough, simply reading the book isn’t even enough to synthesize the material. I’m having to watch lectures by the author and take notes so that I can find my way through the material. My mind is working hard to make slow, incremental progress in understanding, and I haven’t felt this mentally peaceful and conent in many months.

Exercising my mind this way is inexorably linked to my stress levels and my emotional health. This is how I felt as a critical theory major when I was reading philosophy and writing papers. It’s how I felt while learning functional programming, first in JavaScript and then in Haskell. It’s how I felt when I was having to watch David Harvey lectures in order to understand Marx. I am somewhat suspicious of the term “happy” because it doesn’t always feel like an accurate descriptor of my mental state. It feels more accurate to say that these intense learning processes make my mind feel optimal on multiple levels: I am calm, focused, at peace, content, clear…Maybe this is what happiness feels like in my brain? I just know that it’s feels right, optimal, and healthy.

It’s possibly analogous (maybe even isomorphic?) to what some physically fit people describe as a “runner’s high.” I mean, there are definitely exhilerating high points when a particularly complex concept “snaps” into understanding in my mind, but it doesn’t feel like the result of a stimulant. I don’t feel “up.” I feel pleased in a satisfyingly static and even manner. But my mind—maybe my physical brain—craves more of this feeling. I hunger for the feelings that come with learning about these complex topics, and much like I understand a substance additiction to be like from reading the accounts of others, eventually the “softer” or “easier” stuff doesn’t work anymore, and I have to go deeper and harder into more complex topics to reach the same mental and emotional state. I know that the metaphor is well and truly tortured at this point, but borrowing from the language of drugs, hormones, and chemicals and their effects on the brain are the closest I can come to describing these mental states arising from intense learning. And my mind/brain requires this in much the same way that a caffeine-addicted person requires morning coffee, but ultimately, I don’t think this came about from exposure to intense learning, instead it feels like a “normal” and “natural” intial state in my brain. I have always been like this, and forty years in, I don’t think it’s likely change. And philosophically, I would question if it changed whether I would truly be the same person.

From my reading, I understand that folks on the autism spectrum often have sudden and very intense “special interests” that arise in them. Maybe an autistic person gets really into trains, episodes of Star Trek, or knitting with an intensity that seems odd to neurotypical folks. And those special interests can last for a short time or a lifetime. It seems highly individual with respect to both the person and the interest involved. Again, I don’t know whether it’s fair to call myself autistic or not, but I do understand that these special interests can arise in me with an intensity that has often perplexed those around me. And in my case, the source is often whatever makes my mind/brain feel this optimal state in the most effective manner. At this precise moment, math, specifically category theory and abstract algebra, are so effective that they often feel like the only thing I truly want to be doing. I’m literally getting up in the morning, and walking straight out to my kitchen table to watch lectures, read books, and work on sample exercises. Maybe it’s a mental form of stimming? It certainly soothes me emotionally and mentally in the same way that biting at my nails or playing with my hair can, and that interpretation doesn’t feel wrong.

I learned at an early age to hide my mental weirdness from others. When you’re too excited about learning “nerdy” things, other kids—hell, even adults—tend to make fun of you. This is often framed as “friendly teasing,” but honestly, it’s also a mechanism for social control, for social reproduction of persons who will exhibit sufficiently “normal,” which is to say “neurotypical,” behavior. Being very clever with learning and understanding systems, I got good at hiding or masking my own difference to not stand out to others. I can fake being neurotypical, straight, and “normal” quite effectively when I want to, but as I approach forty and I learn more about what it means to be me, I’m losing all desire to hide behind a mask. I am me, and one of the few ways I can be articulated in any systematic or objective way is by the set of my interactions. In category theory, categories are defined by their morphisms, their changes/relationships between objects. The morphisms reveal truths about objects in the category based on how they interact or compose. The objects themselves might as well be invisible since we can’t really “peek into” the category in the way we might with elements of a set. In much the same way, my thoughts and mental environment are hidden, and only my behavior—which includes attempts at explicit communication—provides an interface to them. If I allow my interface to be a mask, to others, I might as well be that mask. I have never had much interest in living the life someone else would have me live, so if I want to explicitly be my self in this world, that means putting away my mask and letting others into my weirdness by allowing the full set of my weird behaviors to be more visible. And given that diversity is explicitly part of my working definition of beauty, by allowing my difference to be manifested publicly in the world, I am increasing the amount of beauty in the world. I think I’m weird because I don’t see a lot of people like me in day-to-day life, but honestly, if we’re all giving in to our desire to mask ourselves to best fit into society’s current model, how would I know if that’s even true?

So yeah…Learning about complex topics seems to be a critical piece of my emotional and mental health. That’s helpful for me to know because it helps me shape my behavior in ways that make my life healthier and more optimal, but I also think it’s helpful to share with others because it’s a form of socializing that feels comfortable and “natural” for me. My experience becomes part of the larger human discourse, and in that, it also becomes part of the rich set of human diversity. In understanding each other and our disparate points of view, we compose our efforts together to move humanity and life itself ever forward toward a distant destination we can’t yet envision.