Have you ever heard of Dr. Edward Tronick’s (Harvard University) “Still Face Experiment”? It was primarily about how children learn about the world from reading the emotions on their mothers’ faces.
In the first part of the experiment, the mother reacts to her baby’s body language, laughter, eye contact etc. In the second part, her facial expression is frozen. The baby gets upset and tries to get her mother’s attention and engagement back.
Our interaction with the world is based on both verbal and non-verbal incentives. We read the emotions from people’s grimaces, we know whether they are happy or sad from the tone of their voice, and most of us understands irony in their best friend’s “Thank you very much!” when you’ve just given him or her another unnecessary piece of advice.
But imagine your life without those skills. Imagine that you cannot read people’s faces, you don’t know whether they are serious or not, you don’t understand allusions and you take everything literally. Oh, and somehow, in order to compensate for this, perhaps, you know all the capital cities of all the countries in the world, and you know all the prime numbers up to 7 057.
This is the case of Christopher John Francis Boone, an autistic teenager and the main protagonist in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – a novel in which the boy tries to solve the puzzle of what happened to his neighbour’s poodle.
Trivia: Prime number is a natural number greater than 1 that has no positive divisors other than 1 and itself (e.g. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11…). Haddon’s novel is narrated by Christopher and the chapters are numbered with prime numbers.
I read this novel over two evenings. It’s swift, it’s intelligent and it’s very well-written. I appreciated the idea of deconstructing autism in the way Haddon did it; of showing the immense potential that lies behind what most people are afraid of.
Haddon doesn’t like when the critics call his novel “a book about autism”. He once wrote on his blog that “if anything, it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way” (source).
I don’t want to spoil you the pleasure of reading about Christopher’s adventures – of how he solves the mystery, why his father hid the letters from Christopher’s mother, why the boy needs to go to London and how he gets confused by the signs in the London Underground…
I’d like you to check for yourself. And below, you can see my inspirations with the reality of the novel:
Christopher needed the help of his teacher, Siobhan, to read emotions. The picture with a smiling (or sad) face made the boy realise what he, or others, felt. He could not rely on his instinctive reactions.
On the other hand, most of us can read the world figuratively and predict other people’s reactions on the basis of some tiny pieces of data. We can, but we don’t do it often enough. We don’t follow our intuition, we don’t pay attention, we don’t read the signs.
Look into somebody’s eyes for more than 3 seconds, smile more and believe that your choices can be right.