Monotropism is the tendency and constitutional preference to get caught up in one thing at a time. Polytropism is the opposite tendency, to maintain multiple threads of attention at once. I think ‘tropism’ exists in a spectrum from extremely mono (deep and narrow) to extremely poly (shallow and broad). Monotropic people are generally more introverted, for the simple reason that when you are caught up in something, communicating is a distraction; and when you are communicating with someone, if you have a tendency to get caught up in whatever you are doing, the experience can become uncomfortably intense (for both parties).
The extreme end of monotropism could play a role in Asperger’s syndrome, which is marked by deep absorption in specialized interests. People with Asperger’s are also hindered by social dysfunction, and here is how that might be explained in monotropic terms. They say that communication is 80% nonverbal (body language and tone of voice) and only 20% content (choice of words). What this means is that when you communicate with someone, you need to pay attention to several channels at once: you need to understand the words they are saying, at the same time as you take in the nonverbals. But to a monotropic person, that’s as hard as trying to watch a movie at close range through binoculars. Being monotropic is kind of like having tunnel vision. When they focus on one aspect, the others disappear, and as soon as they chase one of the other aspects, the first one disappears. So the monotropic person is forced to choose a single aspect to lock their focus on, in order to get any traction in the conversation at all. That aspect is most likely to be the content, because that is the one thing they are liable to be quizzed on. Therefore, highly monotropic people with social difficulties are said to “miss social cues.” They are at a disadvantage when communicating with polytropic people because they can’t keep up with all the channels. Some monotropic people realize that they are failing, but others are so caught up in their efforts that they don’t even realize there’s a problem.
But monotropic people have their own advantages. They can build up deep context and thoroughly understand complex subjects such as chemical reactions and software internals. They will go over subjects repeatedly to absorb all the details and put them together into a full picture, something that is not possible in an ad-hoc conversation. They are sensitive, precisely because they are designed to work best with an X-acto knife and tweezers, not a chainsaw.
Here are some characteristics of monotropism that I have observed:
- Monotropism can lead to a kind of “spaciness” because a monotrope may be so deep in an incompatible context that nothing that is going on in the current context makes any sense.
- Monotropes may be absent-minded because they can be bitten by the principle of “out of sight, out of mind.” Monotropic children may particularly have a problem with this if they haven’t yet learned compensating habits like checking their surroundings before leaving an environment, or keeping a calendar.
- Monotropism can, ironically, cause divided attention because a monotrope may be afraid of letting a thought go due to the fear that once it’s forgotten, it will be lost.
- Monotropes may seek repetition and sameness for the sake of convenience and practicality; for example they are more likely to wear the same shoes every day because it reduces the number of things they have to think about.
- Monotropes may be a little clumsy because they are often tempted to put physical tasks like walking on autopilot.
In recent years, recognition of the introvert and the introverted life orientation has burst into public consciousness. Books like “The Highly Sensitive Person” and “The Introvert Advantage,” and popular articles like “Caring for Your Introvert” and “How to Live with Introverts” have become quite popular. But I think an opportunity is being missed by failing to recognize the underlying attention style. Classifying people as “introvert” vs. “extrovert” misses the point by making it about a social interaction style, about the idea that introverts get tired specifically from interacting with people. This leads to misconceptions such as the idea that introverted people don’t have the same types of social needs as others. When really, it’s being prevented from engaging in the single-pointed concentration that is most comfortable for them that makes monotropic people tired, and social exposure is just one context where this happens (although probably the most common).
I think monotropic people have suffered because they have been isolated and misunderstood. Monotropic people have no less need for social contact and a sense of belonging than polytropes, but not only it is harder for monotropes to find people they can relate to because monotropism is less common, but also, their attention style gives them fewer ‘slices’ to spend on social interaction — and even when connecting with other monotropes, it is unusual for their separate interests to line up. So monotropes like arrangements where they can work alongside friends on parallel projects, or make serendipitous contact like in a college dorm. The irony is that in the conventional polytropic world of suburbs and bars, social contact must be specifically initiated; it is not generally available as a background element except within the traditional nuclear family. So too often, monotropes wind up having to choose between doing what’s comfortable and getting the social connection they need.
As well, polytropes often misinterpret monotropic preoccupation as a sign that they aren’t friendly or interested in relating. For that matter polytropes tend to misinterpret a lot of monotropic behaviors, because the subjective context that makes those behaviors make sense may not be immediately apparent. This tends to cause monotropes to withdraw further, because they can’t trust that they will be granted the benefit of the doubt by people who don’t know them well.
Furthermore, I think the chances of a monotrope being mistreated when young are greatly increased due to being misunderstood, and not only that, but the greater sensitivity of monotropes in general makes this likely more damaging for them than for a polytropic peer. Such children may also fall through the cracks of the education system; for example when I was in elementary school, I had disciplinary problems because I apparently refused to pay attention in class, and later I was given the label of ADD. Since in many ways, monotropism is the exact opposite of ADD, I think the diagnosis is an exemplar of the way in which harried teachers and school administrators can lack interest in finding (or can lack the tools to find) the actual root cause of a class participation problem in children, in order to have any hope of addressing it. (As a note, I overcame this issue in junior high by learning to be an obsessive note-taker, which worked with my tendencies rather than against them.)
Revenge of the Monotropes
The invention of the computer was a coup for monotropic people. Now that technology has become such a critical part of everyone’s lives, monotropes are a new kind of hero. Where, in previous decades, monotropes could express their nature only through academic pursuits such as compiling dictionaries, collecting insects, or building a Babbage engine, today the laser focus talent means you are a magician. A software engineer can transform the way we buy and sell and communicate. A mechanical engineer can make some drawings and then have a mill or a 3-D printer manifest their design. A statistician can make models that produce astonishing predictions.
But we monotropes are not yet used to not being underdogs. It is an uneasy acceptance that we have achieved. It is a bit like my experience when I was in school: in any given aspect I was always either a genius or a moron. Schoolwork? Genius. Art? Genius. Fashion sense? Moron. Ability to have a conversation with someone? Moron. I was pretty confused by this polarization. It seemed that in no way could I ever be “normal” and fit in. The ascendance of the nerd in our culture has given rise to a similar position. There is power now but also still shame.
My wish is that one day, monotropes and polytropes will be able to respect, understand, and accommodate each other’s differences. Monotropes and polytropes need each other just as the grey matter and the white matter of the brain need each other. Polytropes have an opportunity to use their social abilities to bridge the gaps with those who are less specialized for it. Conversely, monotropes need some awareness and courage to ask for feedback (“have I stayed on this subject for too long?”) and expose more of themselves, so that others can better understand where they are coming from. To get to this future world, we need to make the strange familiar. Each style needs to understand how the unfamiliar behaviors of the opposite style relate to the underlying attention distribution strategy and its inherent abilities and limitations. And most of all we need to vanquish our respective insecurities, by realizing that both attention styles are “normal” and neither is superior to the other.