I have a set of very specific interests: subjects that fascinate me, that I’m always eager to learn more about, and will devote quite a bit of time and effort towards. In the past these interests have been films, TV shows, books, religions, games, crafts, sciences. I’ve always called them “obsessions”, because they’ve felt all-consuming. At their height, they’re all I want to read about, learn about, talk about, and I get a lot of joy from working on them. Conversely, things that don’t interest me I find almost impossible to concentrate on or learn.
I identified this in my early teens and noticed that I’d always be able to learn things a lot more easily if they were tangentially related to something I already had an interest in. For instance: if I’d been given a stained glass kit as a present and had absolutely no interest in it at the time, years later I might develop an interest in churches, which developed from an obsession with religions, and suddenly there would be a potential link to stained glass: I’d start absorbing and seeking all the information I could about the craft. I pictured this process as a Web of Interests, slowly expanding outwards to absorb more points (subjects), but only ever when they could be connected in some way to something that already interested me, and even stronger if it connected to more than one existing point.
I’ve tried in vain to force myself into making something useful a “special interest”: maths, programming, DIY, psychology, but these kinds of things are too broad, not easily connectable. I’ve ended up with an interest in the autism spectrum, but that’s a very narrow field. Trying to trick myself into making the connections (“how about learning a programming language to make a game based on stained glass windows?”) doesn’t seem to work either. It is what it is: my brain will either absorb hungrily or reject it all.
Working on a special interest is a fantastic thing. When I was a child I filled blank notebooks with information, carefully presented as though I were writing an actual book: large titles, page numbers, formatted with pictures, and all done by hand in those pre-computer days. When we did get a home computer around the end of my primary school time, I moved into formatting digitally and printing off the pages to be placed in a ring-binder. Being able to move and sort the printed “chapters” within a file was a lot more pleasing than having to plan every page in a notebook carefully, and I filled several enormous files with my special interests (probably costing my parents a small fortune in ink). I gravitated towards interests that had a systematic aspect: I loved religions, as there were so many distinct and diverse, yet interconnected aspects to them which could be neatly divided up into those chapters. A whole religion is a vast thing, but you could easily super-focus on one small aspect of it (say, the history of papal regalia, tarot cards, Ganesh Chaturthi, etc) for a few weeks or months and learn everything you could, before moving on to the next.
Ever since I crashed out into depression in my teens my memory has been glitchy. This, combined with the fact that I tend to defer to others if they profess knowledge and my knowledge is not perfect, have meant that I don’t recall facts and (especially) figures very well any more. My special interests are predominantly recorded physically rather than mentally: giant files, websites, and documents acting as external memory banks and repositories for the information. I also love the process of sorting and organising information, so transforming it into a physical state is enjoyable for that reason as well.
On the plus side, this means I seek to understand a subject rather than memorise facts about it. Understanding seems to take up less brain-space than memorising facts, and often facts can be inferred if you understand the logic behind the subject as a whole (eg. I failed to completely memorise a lot of the formulae for my physics exams, but because I understood the forces at work and how they interacted, I could recreate the formulae through logic). This is both useful and irritating: I can work things out reasonably easy, but get intensely frustrated when others don’t see the system behind something, tell me I’m wrong, or insist on including redundant steps just because it’s how they were shown to do something.
It has also led to my more recent special interests being more practical and visual than information based. I’ve always had a visual/practical memory: reading a set of instructions for something unfamiliar doesn’t really sink in, I have to do whatever it is, and then I’ll get it. It’s all about gaining that understanding of the system, rather than rote learning facts. These days my interests do tend to be arts, crafts, design, DIY, systems and logic, though occasionally an obsession about a particular subject (autism, pandemics, a particular type of politics) will sweep in and reassure me that my brain is still at least partly functional!
This lack of rote memory is one of the main things that cause me to doubt that I could be on the autistic spectrum, as fantastic rote memory seems to be one of the great abilities oft reported by those on the spectrum. However, having done some reading around the subject, there seems to be more to it than that. I’ll probably do a separate post about memory at some point once I have all the information organised.