Allow me to introduce one of my friends, whom I will call ‘Chelsea’. She is a family doctor and we have known each other since we were university students.
One day I was trying to explain to her the principle of Quantum Physics which says empty space is filled with ‘virtual particles’. This means that a pair of particles can appear ‘out of nowhere’ as long as they vanish again within a split-second interval related to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. There would be no cause for this to happen in a particular place; it takes place randomly simply because it’s statistically possible for it to do so.
Chelsea found this idea simply impossible to believe. I don’t think her problem was with the words; she could probably picture the concept of something emerging out of nothing. What she couldn’t accept was that the physical universe could possibly behave that way; her brain was conditioned by many years of seeing effect follow cause. I think they call that cognitive dissonance. It was clear that although she trusted my science qualifications, she could not bring herself to believe what I was asserting.
Chelsea is one of those trusted friends well aware of my Asperger’s diagnosis who serve as sounding boards to help me explore the neurotypical world. A few days later, I asked her a question. Was it true that when I visited her house, that even before I said any word or performed any action deliberately intended to communicate affection, she would be consciously aware of being in the presence of someone who loved her very much? She affirmed that she would, and when I pressed her on how she would know, she said she could see it in my eyes.
Not long after this conversation, another friend, a deacon, made a passing remark – “You could really see God in that person.” It’s a common phrase, but one I’ve never understood, so I took the opportunity to ask what my deacon-friend really meant by seeing God in someone. Ultimately he decided: “I can see it in their eyes.”
I also recently took part in a psychology experiment. I was asked to look at pictures showing human expressions – just a ‘letterbox’ image of the two eyes without the rest of the face – and choose from multiple-choice lists to say what emotion I felt the eyes were expressing. I found it almost impossible! Coupled with what the deacon and Chelsea told me, it was good confirmation that while most humans can read emotions in the eyes, I cannot.
I have great trouble accepting this, just as Chelsea has great trouble grasping the counter-intuitive truths of Quantum Physics. It is so alien to my experience that you can ‘just pick up’ on how someone else feels about you, that although I can just write what I have written, it is very difficult to live my life feeling confident that my friends don’t need me to tell them how much I care about them because they can already sense it!
When it comes to the counter-intuitive proposals of the Special Theory of Relativity (if you try to accelerate close to the speed of light you get heavier rather than going faster) and of Quantum Mechanics, I am very ready to accept that I have no direct experience of these realms, and if the mathematics predicts it, and experiment verifies it, then it must be so. But when it comes to the question of being human, it’s harder for me. I have to learn that my own experience of being human is not a good guide to the experience of the typical human beings around me.
There’s an oft-repeated statistic that says that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. This is true, but only for a very specific kind of communication – knowing what emotion is meant to be communicated by the saying of a single word. Imagine trying to say the word ‘thanks’, or ‘maybe’, or ‘terrible’ while deliberately trying to convey a positive, neutral or negative emotion. Mehrabian’s studies showed that the emotion behind a single word spoken in this contrived situation was conveyed 7% by the word itself, 38% by the tone of voice, and 55% by the facial expression.
I know from experience that I can read tone of voice pretty well, and if I can see someone’s whole face I can get a general sense from what I see – but if the eyes are so important then, hard though it is for me to believe, I am missing out on a very significant channel of communication. For you, if you are a typical human being, you are probably shrugging your shoulders at the banality of what I have just said, but for me, I am fighting cognitive dissonance to embrace this incredible truth!
A useful resource in this regard may be the Mind Reading DVD tool.