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The Double Edged Sword of Free Associating Brains

CW brief (& tangential) mention of torture & death.

Since what seems like forever, I’ve been aware of thought processes that go like this: suppose I’ve just woken up and discovered that it’s a nice sunny day.

Oh that sunshine is nice! Isn’t it awesome that it feels so lovely and warm from 93 million miles away? [Now I’m in a space capsule heading towards the sun] “I bet it would feel really hot with no wind in the space capsule. How close would you be able to get to the sun before the heat became unbearable? Maybe only a few hundred thousand miles from here. What’s that as a percentage of 93 million? Gosh I wish that people didn’t say “Pence in the pound” when all they need is “Percent” which *simply* means “per hundred”. Why don’t they teach that in schools? Maybe they do nowadays. And people dissing Pythagoras all the time. You need Pythagoras to work out the magnitude of a complex number. All of engineering would be impossible without that! Ahh I remember doing complex algebra during my PhD. I used to love writing the curly delta signs on partial derivatives. Especially in ballpoint pen. Oh and I used to love writing with my calligraphy set as a child!

This sort of thought can go on and on. One morning I’ll be led to thinking about something technical, another I’ll get stuck on how it would actually feel to get fried to death by being too close to the sun. Or I’ll link sunlight to quantum theory to the definition of a second to how long I think I could bear to be tortured for in a variety of ways.

Rapidly associating one thing with another like this is how I’ve “thought outside the box” and been successful at work. But it’s also how I’ve paralysed myself with fear as my brain works out in just how many ways *everything* can go *horribly wrong*.

By the way, if Lynn asks me during this sort of thought pattern “What are you thinking about – you look like you’re miles away?” I will answer “Nothing much!” because explaining it all is just so much pointless effort.

The Galton Board of Mental Gymnastics

There’s a thing called a Galton board which is used to demonstrate a mathematical concept but also features in TV game shows like “The Wall”. It’s a regular arrangement of pins on a vertical board, and you drop a ball in at the top and it bounces from pin to pin and emerges randomly from many places into tubes or funnels at the bottom.

I was explaining to someone at the weekend how my dad has thought processes like this, but in his case the bouncing ball in the always comes out in the funnel marked “Cars”. Anyone can give *any* topic to dad, and in about three bounces on average he’s talking about cars (which, I now believe, is his autistic special interest).

Dad: “How’s work?”

Me: “Oh, hard. I had to do a presentation for the finance director”

Dad: “We had a nice finance director at work. He left in 1989 though. No it was 1988 because he bought a brand new Jaguar X-type just before he left. Lovely cars those. Terrible seating position though. And they had all sorts of trouble with the throttle cables.”

Unlike with dad, *my* Galton board seems to have more than one output funnel. Or, more accurately, I have more than one Galton board in my head. Some start with only a few topics and fan out to hundreds of possibilities, where some start with many and end in a few. I don’t think I’m ever sure which board my brain is going to choose. Unfortunately for me, anxiety likes playing with them.

Change is possible

One interesting (and useful) thing is that you can re-label the funnels on your mental Galton boards. Or you can choose to have new funnels appear and old ones fade away. Even better than that, you can swap out the pins higher up and replace entire sections of board.

There’s an idea known as the Availability Heuristic which basically says that you can only think about topics that have any kind of immediate availability to be thought about in your head, and that the sorts of thoughts that hang around in your head are likely to be the ones that you end up thinking about.

So, if you always end up thinking about things that you find disturbing, it *can be* because you have a lot of disturbing topics that you habitually think about that jump up and down shouting “Me! Pick me!” when the ball goes bouncing past. Of course the random ball won’t always pick them, but if there are lots of these thoughts around, it’s more likely that the ball will pick one of them.

And, as an autistic person, I think I have both a) this type of ping ping thought sequence and b) a tendency to bias my focus towards things that could go wrong.

In my experience, it’s not easy to pull out the unwanted pins and simply leave a blank hole. But what seems to be easier is to flood the board with positive things by consciously choosing the less disturbing thought whenever you have that choice as a conscious possibility that you’re aware of. That way, the next ball has a nicer ride and this reinforces the habit of spiralling thoughts ending up in happier places.


I now realise that the way I wrote this post was very much an example of the kind of thought process that I described in it. I had no idea that during writing it I was going to ping the pin marked “Availability Heuristic” that had been sitting un-pinged in my brain for at least 10 years.

So it’s another of those posts that “wrote itself” in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I hope you enjoyed it!


p.s. One of the inputs to this was an Instagram post about how autistic people tend to think like this, and I have to agree with the post where it says effectively “Wait, you mean other people *don’t* think like this?”. The thought process as described in that post seemed exactly the way I think and not at all unusual.

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