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Idiot Savants


Here is an article (written March 1, 2007) which was never put up on our web site.  Better late than never!

I'm not sure this article is even appropriate for our website, as it's not particularly spiritual, just some rambling thoughts from an old man.

I've been having some very subtle mental problems lately which could also have some spiritual connections, and it has led me to some interesting observations about myself (which may be relevant to others as well).

I have always enjoyed games like Scrabble and Sudoku, but lately I find myself much more addicted to them, to the detriment of my writing ability and, worse still, my ability to relate to other people.  Because of the problems I'm having with memory and with finding the right word, really long writings (like "Listening", the sequel to "Survivors") have turned into painful ordeals for me.  If my mind really is deteriorating, I need to finish "Listening" asap, before I'm not ABLE to finish it!  But when I find myself with a choice between writing the novel or posting a short comment on our forum, I lean toward the forum, and if I am given a choice between posting on the forum or playing a game of Literati (yahoo scrabble), I am drawn obsessively toward Literati.

I have told myself that these games are "mental stimulation" and that they will help to keep my mind active for a longer period of time.  But, in fact, they are really mental escapes.  If my problem, for example, is not being able to remember words, then I need to work with whole words, and not with letters (i.e. using them to construct words).  And if my problem is not being able to communicate well with other people, then playing with numbers is not going to solve that.

I heard once that academic specialists are people who learn more and more about less and less until one day they know absolutely everything there is to know about nothing.  It is this tendency to move from social interaction, to writing, to playing with letters that seems to reflect a similar sad progression.  I think this may be something like what happens in the minds of "idiot savants" or people who appear to be intellectually and socially handicapped in most areas, but absolute geniuses in one specific area.

Now here is where I want to make a broader application which may be relevant to others reading this who are not afflicted with senility.  I am concerned that most video games encourage this kind of regressive focus, so that they end up robbing people of the really practical skills that we need in the real world.  Social interaction is so very important in the real world, whereas the skills learned by playing hundreds of hours of Space Invaders or some other video game seem to come at a high price socially.  (Note: I also recognise that games are getting more sophisticated these days and so they are gradually challenging people to use three or four buttons on the keyboard rather than one or two; but I still think they cannot and should not replace real life.)

I think back over my life and realise that this is a fairly simple way of contrasting Cherry and me.  I don't want to put myself down TOO much, but even on my best days I do not interact nearly as well as Cherry does socially.  She has the confidence, for example, to approach perfect strangers and offer assistance if she thinks they need it.  She is constantly tending to little things like getting people cups of tea.  She is tireless about thinking of the needs of others.  All of this interest in other people may, in fact, be what is keeping her mind so sharp today, while my many hours of hiding away with a computer have moved me in a different direction.

It's probably too late to teach an old dog new tricks, and I do believe that my writing has been an important ministry.  Eventually I may not be ABLE to do more than play with numbers and letters.  But I'm just observing at this end of my life the fruits of choices I made many years ago.  And I can see some warning signs there for people who have let themselves become addicted to an even less challenging pursuit (i.e. video games) at a much younger age.  Please do get out and smell the roses!
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