The Pattern Seekers:A New Theory of Human Invention

Date Reviewed
January 8th 2023


I was drawn to 'The Pattern Seekers:A New Theory of Human Invention' through a CBC 'Quirks and Quarks' radio interview with the author, Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on autism.

And while not as immersed in the subject of autism as I expected, it is integrated into a more general analysis of brain skills and types, some of which are correlated with autism.

But the author seems to be using the book to suggest his own theory on a way the brain can be parsed to explain certain skills.

In his lead-in chapters, his focus is people who were known to be autistic or in retrospect believed to have been. These people, noted for skills as “pattern seekers”, often scored high on quantitative portions of I.Q. Tests.

However, his theory compares 'pattern seekers' with people strong in interpersonal intelligence. He sets up various categories explaining degrees of difference in the combinations of these two types of intelligence.

The opening quote from the 20th century British mathematician Alan Turing “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine” sets the tone for at least part of the book.

He also directs the reader to certain kinds of quirks or types of savantism, with skills that seem magical to most of us and at the same time the voids in recognizing situations common to most.

One he cites is a man who could look at seawater and, from 'reading' patterns on the surface, determine the kind and depth of fish swimming below. Fishermen called on him to supply this skill, but it did not lead to any further social involvement. That man had difficulties socializing.

Steve Silberman in his book “Neuro Diversity” cites a situation where a researcher was interviewing the owner of a computer coding business. He asked the coder if any of the quality control people had 'Asperger's syndrome', a high functioning category of autism. The answer was “I think all of them do”.

The coder explained that they are much quicker than others in detecting anomalies in the patterns of code.

Baron-Cohen's first chapter illustrates a penchant for understanding things and patterns at the expense of interest in what others were doing or interested in. His first example was of a boy with a learning style variously described as “pedantic, obsessive, rigid, precise and exhaustive”. As such, regular school didn't work for him, but he galloped ahead on his own. And Thomas Edison became an inventor.

The author declares Edison autistic and draws a connection with the penchant for inventing and how it might have been replicated with humans down through the years.

Baron-Cohen's supporting theory has the human brain continually turning over the idea of 'if-and-then' patterns. He calls it a 'systemizing mechanism' and speculates that it developed through a human cognitive revolution 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. And he attributes the development of it as the origin of science and technology. He bases this watershed on relatively little change in tool technology for the two million years prior. The bow and arrow, seemingly only used by homo sapiens, shows first evidence of appearance 71,000 years ago in sub Saharan Africa. He back dates the birth of invention to cover possible future discoveries

Reading the book, I understood the author as making this idea his contribution to what separates humans from other species (makes them superior). This setting apart is a determined ongoing persistent endeavour of our species. Humans used to take for granted several fundamental superiorities, but recent discoveries have suggested much of the difference is just matter of degree. Many earlier determinations have proved faulty, ironically through the march of science. My impression is that making this his definitive contribution is a purpose of the book. Humans believe they are fundamentally superior to other beings and are determined to find a singular unshakeable facility supporting the idea. I feel this reading through the book.

He points to the inadequacy of other primates in the systemizing skill and says there is no “robust” evidence that any humans, before homo sapiens, “could spot causal pattern”, yet a two-year-old can. He may be dismissing contradictory or “challenged” evidence as “unproven” to bolster his case. He carefully differentiates between “learning” and “inventing”.

Other species can detect 'associative patterns', particularly when motivated by rewards, but not 'causal'.

Baron-Cohen's research suggests that autistic people and those in STEM subjects have the common predisposition to systemizing.

He points to circumstances suggesting that offspring of academics at the Massachusetts Institute of technology have a higher incidence of autism. The school refused research directly into the connection, fearing the reputation of the university might be harmed, he says.

And while I don't accept all Baron-Cohen's ideas and contentions, the investigation is both worthwhile and intriguing.

The book, with less than 150 pages of basic text, before appendices, is packed with information and ideas.

An annoyance, even more in writing than speaking, is the relatively recent incorrect redundancy that should be nixed by an editor “exact same” appears on page 64.



Baron-Cohen's 'if-and-then' essentially describes the questioning process followed by humans in discovering causes. Using it led to inventions and from these other ideas hence more inventions came.

He cites botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus as a hyper-systemizer for his categorizing of plants and animals through patterns of similarity. He doesn't suggest this may be recognizing 'associative patterns', not so much causes.

Systemizing can also be done through informal experimentation and observation. It effects so much basic learning from childhood onward.

The author says the systemizing process fails in social interactions and it is there that the 'empathy circuit' is the key mechanism. He calls this also an 'astonishing change' in the human brain and a divergence from all other species. It is responsible for thinking about the feelings of others as well as our own feelings. From this humans can anticipate how others will react. It is a more flexible mechanism than systemizing. He does not challenge the idea that elephants and whales may be among species with this sensitivity.

In humans and no others, he says, “we find the full systemizing mechanism which drives curiosity to ask questions, experiment with variations in patterns and the Full Empathy circuit.”

Hyper-systemizers, he says, struggle with the simplest of everyday social tasks.

Reinforcing this interpretation are two measuring sticks...the “systemizing quotient” SQ and the “empathy quotient” EQ. High SQ indicates a lot of attention to detail with non personal matters, exact sciences and patterns and there seems to be a drive toward invention. On EQ there are strengths in understanding what other people or beings might be thinking and feeling and less interested in repeating patterns.

Utilizing these, the author describes five “brain types” depending on the different combinations of these two quotients. He does not categorize any as superior just different. Women more than men seem to have higher type E and the inverse with type S. Extreme type S occurs in about four per cent of males and two per cent of females and it includes autistic people, says Baron-Cohen. Extreme type E shows a comparable or higher inverse gender ratio.

The extreme SQ also produces “savantism”. Savants have a special skill far above others and also higher than their other skills. One example is “calendric calculators”, people who can say immediately what day of the week a certain date fell or will fall on in the future. It is estimated that savantism occurs about one in a million in the general population, but in autistic people one in 200 so there is also a correlation with extreme type S. Autistic people gravitate to the STEM subjects.

Awkward and blunt communication is also a characteristic of extreme type S leading to difficulty making and keeping friends. This in turn can lead to depression and sense of social exclusion. But they may also prefer their own company.

He describes type B as having balance between the two systems and in this category men and women are about the same at about 35 per cent. The other 65 per cent, in Baron-Cohen's system, are to some degree extreme.

Talk of gender brain differences does lead to political problems with egalitarian ideas, he concedes. And there seem to be differences and that has been found correlated with prenatal testosterone levels.

“Many people shudder at the idea that genes have anything to do with traits like systemizing or empathy, wanting to believe that all you need are the right learning opportunities and experiences.”

While extreme type S offers some technical advantages, it has serious disadvantages socially which may have led evolution to produce few of them, 2.5 per cent. The higher one is tuned in one area usually corresponds with a lower in the other.

Baron-Cohen describes the Autism Spectrum Quotient, AQ and he says all people have some of the factors, but autistic people score higher on more of them.

The author says that most people are “satisficers” who search only long enough for a solution that will get the job done satisfactorily where “maximizers” insist on getting the optimal solution and have more patience to find it. The latter are hyper systemizers.

It seems some of the genes for hyper systemizing are the same for autism. They have 'operating systems' less focussed on people and more on patterns and things. They deal in facts and little with implicit meaning.

Despite skills, some extraordinary, many autistic people remain unemployed and living with their parents. Their lack of social skills discourage employers.This compounds a sense of discouragement and not fitting in.

They continually look for “if-and-then” patterns, concrete or abstract depending on seeking constants. Whether they are concrete or abstract may depend on intelligence. They are hyper-sensitive to sounds, lights, unfamiliar people and unexpected change.

An interesting perspective: “Genius is sometimes defined as looking at the same information that others have looked at before and either noticing a pattern that others have missed or coming up with a new pattern that constitutes an invention.”

A disproportionate number of autistic people are hyper systemizers...and have the potential to be inventors.

The author, from information, extrapolates that Edison was autistic. He speculated the same about Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla. Of modern inventors Bill Gates experienced some of the difficulties associated with hyper-systemizing.

This extreme systemizing is often associated with little empathy and the ability to see things from another's point of view.

Rather than only restricted to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), the author suggests that it is also in the arts citing the pianist Glen Gould and jazz music as examples. The author maintains it is also present in sports where there may be obsessing over patterns of performance (physical intelligence).

If people are functioning fine a diagnosis of autism serves no real advantage, he says. It is needed where someone is struggling to cope and seeking support.

The author goes into some detail over why he selects the 70,000 to 100,000 years ago period for brain development leading to causal exploring. There seems to have been a sudden and rapid development in tools and crafts from that period. He speculates whether this apparent revolution was a driver in some of the migration waves out of Africa around this time.

Baron-Cohen contends that this “new algorithm in the human mind sets us apart from every other animal and inventing became unstoppable”.

The systemizing possibly led to agriculture and harnessing of nature, he adds. It would have led to inventing the wheel maybe as much as 6,000 years ago. Writing, the next transformative invention, came about 5,500 years ago, the watershed for pre-history and history. Mathematics came about 5,000 years ago, and like writing seems to have been linked to keeping track of taxes.

He speaks of the “empathy circuit” as necessary for the invention of religion and laws.

The domestication of fire and hence cooking seems to have long preceded Baron-Cohen's revolution in systemizing and he explains it as one off behaviour that was repeated, not like other inventions enhanced and improved.

He explains some examples of Neanderthal invention as inconclusive, but suggests that homo sapiens ingenuity, including social, led to the demise of Neanderthals.

He says the presence of jewelry 75,000 years ago is a reflection that humans were interested in how others perceived them.

He calls the “systemizing mechanism” leading to inventions the “rubicon dividing us from all other animals”. Other animals, he says, do not experiment out of curiosity.

Systemizing and language may have developed in the same 70,000 to 100,000 years ago and both have been involved in inventing and reinforcing each other.

Inventing requires a causal concept bolstered by a larger working memory. The systemizing method drives curiosity.

The author has a tendency to dismiss evidence outside his timeframe as “one off instances and open to other interpretations”.

Baron-Cohen points out the relationship between inventors and autistic as hyper systemizers and the increasing likelihood of these people passing the characteristic to their children as autism.

He speculates that the evolution of society where more people of similar interests and abilities meet more frequently could explain some of the recent increase in autism, along with finer methods of screening. He gave Silicon Valley and its refined tech industry as an extreme example of a fertile place for autism to exist and replicate through genes.

There also seems to be a statistically significant increase in cases of autism in wealthy families. Autism occurs in one to two per cent of families, but eight per cent of wealthy families. And further wealth seems to correlate with business success, which again correlates with systemizing. And he refers to supporting anecdotal information.

The author maintains that inventors are more likely to be found among the autistic and those with similar traits than in the general population.

He supports the recent concept of neurodiversity recognizing a range of brain types and that “there is no single way for the brain to develop”. He believes various “brain types evolved and adapted to certain environmental niches.” He suggests we shouldn't be only focussed on what people can't do rather than what they can. And in the case of autism the hyper-systemizing should be nurtured for the special skills they may have.

While their skills would be valued, the autistic are usually vetted through a standard job interview that inadvertently discriminates against them challenging their discomforts.

Some, he said, object to the idea of neurodiversity and insist that autism be seen as a disease for which a cure needs to be found.

About 80 per cent of autistic people suffer from anxiety often due to unexpected change or social interaction. Excessive anxiety can lead to an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

While autism often is accompanied with hyper-systemizing and they may be attracted to STEM subjects they may not be successful if such is not taught appropriately. The author advocates a broad spectrum school curriculum for generalists, which are most kids, and a narrower curriculum for specialists...hyper-systemizers. They should be encouraged and enabled to pursue their strong narrow interests.

While broad education may be seen as better than narrow...narrow is again better than none.