Absentmindedness and Smart People

October 18, 2008

I had an interesting experience a little while back visiting a user of the product I help develop at work. This particular user was clearly bright. He had a firm grasp of the tool and its capabilities. But I was struck watching him manipulate a computer. This guy was leaning forward in his seat, angled towards the screen that sat on the narrowest part of his desk. The keyboard and mouse on his desk seemed an afterthought. His feet were planted firmly on the ground out in the open of the cubicle rather than under the desk. He stared at the screen waiting expectantly, as if you had to get a response from the computer before doing anything else. His input was synchronous - give an input, take an output, evaluate, and give another input. As he manipulated the mouse, he actively searched for the commands he wanted, rather than knowing exactly where to guide the mouse next.

Later that day, I went back to my office and paid more attention to another developer and the way he used his computer. I found the classic image of an involved developer. The headphones were on and he was completely oblivious to the outside world. He was slouched down, with most of his body under his desk; his posture was comfortable. The connection between him and the computer seemed more organic. His computer took up the prime piece of his desk real estate. His fingers flew across the keys, often not waiting for responses before the next queued command was sent off to be executed.

There’s a link between how a person operates a computer and how they view and manipulate the data they work with. I think it has to do with the mental models we create in our heads. Some people operate much better creating elaborate constructions completely inside their head, in effect detached from all reality. Other people only seem to create those models while they remain attached to reality, talking or looking around at the objects they’re referencing.

Before computers were so popular, the dominating image of this stereotype was the absentminded professor. He would bustle down crowded hallways of university buildings, his glasses askew and his tweed jacket not quite hiding that his undershirt wasn’t completely tucked in. The folders he carried were never organized well and there seemed to be a roostertail of detritus behind him even when he wasn’t dropping papers. It was almost as if you could see the ideas being cast off and discarded in his wake. If he bumped into you, he wouldn’t even notice.

The professor wasn’t really there in that hallway. His entire attention is devoted to whatever thought occupied his brain, with only sufficient brainpower diverted to ensure that one foot goes in front of the other.

Being able to devote brainpower over entirely to a mental construct has benefits. Between school and work, I’ve had the opportunity to know some brilliant people. Every single one of them is absentminded. They discard the real world for their mental model.

There’s a connection here with introversion. I won’t be so bold as to say that a very introverted person is more likely to be highly intelligent, but it could be a strong positive indicator. Certainly introversion is a tactical advantage for certain types of work. Computer science, mathematics, and writing all require complex mental models, and people that interact more with the outside world necessarily don’t have as much room in their heads.

The absentminded among us are often considered rude or flighty. So give them a break, they need all the time they can get inside their heads. That’s how they solve problems. We’ll wait patiently too while you talk out the solution to your problem.

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