Monotropism is the tendency and constitutional preference to get caught up in one thing at a time. Polytropism is the opposite: an ability and tendency to maintain multiple threads of attention at once.

The idea of monotropism resonated for me when I learned about it. Everyone’s bad at multitasking, but I’ve always been worse at it than average. Growing up, I got into trouble at school because I would get so absorbed in a scrap of paper or thought tangent that the classroom disappeared for me completely. Later, I was diagnosed with “inattentive type” (i.e. “non-hyperactive”) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which in hindsight was absurd on its face — I was not insufficiently attentive, I was overly-attentive (but, I suppose, I was insufficiently attentive to what my teachers would have preferred). Eventually, I solved my school problems by training myself to take obsessive notes, which gave me something more appropriate to hyper-focus on. Socially, it was rare to connect with other kids; my idea of a good time was an afternoon with my Apple IIGS computer.

"Tunnel Vision" by g-f (click for source)

So when I came across the concept of monotropism, many years later, it struck me that this idea of attentional pattern could be a simple and elegant way to explain a whole cluster of phenomena: introversion; the deep and narrow interests characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome; social difficulties; and more — in terms that do not presume disorder, just difference.

The link between monotropism and introversion is straightforward: when you are focused on something, interfacing with another human 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).

Social dysfunction might be explained in monotropic terms as follows. They say that communication is 80% nonverbal (body language and tone of voice) and only 20% content (choice of words). Assuming that this is true, what it 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 being monotropic is kind of like having tunnel vision. When you focus on one aspect, the others disappear, and as soon as you try to recover one of the other aspects, the first one disappears. So the monotropic person is forced to choose a single aspect to lock 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 a listener is liable to be quizzed on. Therefore, highly monotropic people with social difficulties could be 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 unique 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 complete picture. They are sensitive, because they are designed to work best with an X-acto knife and tweezers, not power tools.

Some additional observations, from my own experience, which I think fit in this model:

  • Monotropism can lead to what appears to be “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 keep track of.

  • Monotropes may be a little clumsy because they are often tempted to put physical tasks like walking on autopilot.

Within my lifetime, 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 articles like “Caring for Your Introvert” and “How to Live with Introverts” have received a lot of attention. I suspect, but can’t prove, that all introversion is driven to some extent by monotropism. If so, 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 out specifically from interacting with people. This leads to misconceptions such as the idea that introverted people don’t have the same need for social connection 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 situation where this happens (although probably the most common).

And 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 context that makes those behaviors make sense may be rational and well thought out, but not immediately obvious. So monotropes may be perceived as “weird.” 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.

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 centuries, monotropes could express their nature only through academic pursuits or craftsman trades, today the laser focus talent can have huge impact. 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 designs. An author or cartoonist can influence minds around the world.

But we monotropes are still too used to being underdogs. It is an uneasy acceptance that we have achieved. My experience as a kid in school seems symbolic: 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 deeply 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 an analogous 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 better world, we need to make the strange familiar. Each style needs to understand the other’s underlying attention distribution strategy, with its 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.