Can you “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”? Not me. Here’s what it’s like to be a dreamer who’s missing cognitive empathy.

Nicole Radziwill
May 24, 2016 · 6 min read

Blake Ross, co-founder of Firefox, posted an article last Thursday that got me really excited. He has no Mind’s Eye.

I have an extremely active and vivid Mind’s Eye. So executively omnipresent in my life, in fact, that I live most moments in this strange space between psychedelia and the spoken or written word. I used to tell people that if you sliced open my brain at any given moment, you’d see the same stuff people usually see on an acid trip, only close enough to the world other people see that I can function like they do (on most days). I dream nearly all the time, sometime even when I’m awake, and it’s all dense and visual and kinesthetic.

I’m unable to put most of my experiences into words, though, especially if the words are supposed to describe feelings. This is called alexithymia, and there’s a test for it here (I score way into the red section). Alexithymia is much more common in adults with autism spectrum characteristics than it is in the general population.

So I chuckled when Blake talked about how people asking him to “picture something” or “imagine something” in his mind just doesn’t compute, because it revealed how my mind doesn’t compute something else (that I’ll share a little later). He answers some of the most common questions people have asked him:

9) How do you imagine things?

First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there were a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he were scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?

I find this hilarious because when I think of “cupcake” and “cough”, here’s what happens. I feel the texture of a spectrum of cupcake densities in the back of my throat, on the tip of my tongue, and dribbling down my chin, all at once. I feel cupcake crumble on my fingertips. I flash through hundreds of potential flavors until I lock on one (or three, or five) that match and characterize my current mood. I see hundreds of pictures of cupcakes flash by, like a window full of Google Images scrolling by when your right mouse button has gotten stuck in page-down mode, and I’m immediately immersed in a matrix of potential parallel cupcake universes. This all happens in a singular millisecond.

I cough, then, because I’ve thought about choking on a wisp of crumb, and the heavy and humid vanilla mist in my throat is already encroaching upon my sinuses. But vanilla reminds me of August 1988, which I also associate with comfort and contentment and coconut oil, so I don’t actually choke.

This sequence of feelings is congruent with high emotional empathy. I become deeply embedded in a sensory and feeling experience just by being reminded that it could, somewhere, exist. I am deeply empathizing with the concept of cupcake. All of the feelings associated with these images and potential states flood me, and locks out thoughts about any other person but myself, and my personal experience of cupcake. There’s just too much information in the physical constructs to get beyond the confines of that energetic container that I associate with me.

But look at what happens in Blake’s mind:

I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he were scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet [to him]? Is the flu delicious [to him]?

Look at all those feeling words! All of a sudden, Blake parachutes into imagining the personal experience of someone (or something) else, with the ease and lightness of a reflex. I never, ever, in my entire life, would have even considered one of these thoughts. It does not compute. My brain does not get there from where the conversation begins.

And it’s not because I’m heartless or don’t care about others. It’s because there is literally some gap in the synapses that prevents me from connecting what I hear or observe to what I might feel, and especially what other people (might) feel. As a result, I’ve had this mental image my whole life of other people as completely impenetrable fortresses, so I don’t even try to get into their heads or hearts. I figure if they want to express something, they’ll do it when they’re ready, and they’ll go into detail so that I’ll understand it. Just like I’d do if I ever figured out words to attach to what I need to express to others.

Both of these things will happen, basically, never… so here’s a template for a conversation I’ve had hundreds of times:

Anyone: Oh, can you imagine what he’s possibly feeling right now?

Voice in my Head 1: There’s no way I can possibly do that, because I’m not him. Full stop.

Voice in my Head 2: OK, he is sad. I’m done thinking about it, now what?

Voice in my Head 3: I don’t have the energy to get near anyone else’s feelings right now, especially this anonymous random person you are talking about who I don’t know.

This is evidence of a cognitive empathy deficit. It’s the same psychological characteristic that will cause me to rush to your side if you cut your finger, wielding ten different styles of band-aid and three kinds of Neosporin, but wouldn’t ever consider giving you a hug (or asking you how you were feeling). Do you need that? Hmm.

I might, though, ask you if you are OK. I’ve had a habit of asking people if they are OK, or if something is wrong, pretty much daily since my youth. In previous years this had the tendency to really piss off romantic partners (in particular) who thought I was needy or insecure. But that’s not what was going on inside me. I just wanted to take the psychological temperature of the people closest to me, because if something really was wrong or they were mad, well then we should probably take care of it (and I’d have no way to know, otherwise). I had way too many people get mad at me for not psychically intuiting that they were mad about something, so I adopted a habit of asking. Which made them mad in another way, but at least this way was manageable and had a better cost/risk profile.

Intense sensory experiences, deep and overwhelming feelings, and the inability to get beyond the shell of language and understanding to make a meaningful connection with someone else… without grueling, exhausting labor (and never really quite “getting it” in the end anyway)… is a deeply unsatisfying conundrum. But like Blake, who found out about Aphasiacs Anonymous, there are also people who have alexithymia and never considered that others didn’t have it.

I’m thrilled to have recently found so many other women online like myself. We share stories about our quirks and idiosyncrasies, and we find out that we’re not alone in our experiences, which is a rare and beautiful form of meaningful connection.

I didn’t know I wasn’t empathizing with others the way they empathize with each other until I was in my mid-30’s. Blake didn’t realize that so many people communicated on the basis of downloading experiences from one Mind’s Eye to another until he was 30. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot more cognitive differences, just like these, that none of us are aware of yet.

And why would we be aware of them? Each of us is born with a particular cognitive perspective, and unless we are presented with a transformational paradox (what? you mean no one else has a tail?) we wouldn’t even know where to look.

I always knew I didn’t understand the concept of “human nature” but didn’t realize that maybe no one really else does, either.

[I’ve decided to point my research in this direction, too.]

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