Details and gist: The interplay between cognitive reasoning and emotional reasoning

by Kat

When I think about people I know well, I picture the first page of a script — the part listing their preferences and backstory. I’ve noticed that although I’m not particularly intuitive about people, I can make sense of them using intrapersonal details. Maybe that’s why I like television commentary. Television writers know how to analyze characters and scenarios in ways that make sense to their readers [1].

My memory for intrapersonal details helps me maintain relationships. I’ve read about the dichotomy that autistics can experience between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Although we have trouble figuring out what someone might be thinking or feeling based on nonverbal cues, we can make sense of their experience using reasoning skills. I’ve learned to think of back-and-forth interactions as a logic puzzle: Based on what I know about this person, what could I say next?

Using cognitive reasoning to fill in gaps in emotional reasoning is probably a workaround I developed to ease myself into social situations. I don’t know what to say, so I imagine myself entering the dialogue before I initiate conversation. As a kid, I tapped adults on the shoulder to get their attention and asked questions before the time for asking questions arrived. I suppose after receiving negative feedback for these social behaviors, I learned coping strategies for this lack of social intuition.

The only problem with these sorts of workarounds is the inevitable reluctance to enter conversations that accompanies my process. Trying to find my place in groups feels like a game of conversational tetherball. I don’t know how to begin speaking without inadvertently interrupting the current speaker.

My memory for details at the expense of gist can be scary when I’m trying to navigate potentially unsafe situations. A few weeks ago, a seemingly creepy guy at the library hugged me without prior warning (certainly didn’t ask for my consent). I didn’t recognize how disturbing his behavior appeared until he was already encroaching on my space. I missed the prior cues that he didn’t respect others’ boundaries.

I’m learning to avoid blaming myself when I miss these sorts of nonverbal cues. Yes, maybe I could have seen the signals earlier and avoided a scary scenario, but it wasn’t my fault that happened. Sometimes I love my detail-oriented nature. I remember people’s backstories in vivid detail, as if they were characters in a rich narrative.

When I talk with people who have been through familial trauma, I know what to say to them (and what not to say): Partially because I have shared experience, but also because I can see their narrative as a concept map — how their present and past intersect. This skill helps me listen and accept what they’re saying without needless questioning.

As frustrating as it can be to miss the forest for the trees, I’m “practicing being proud” of my memory for details [2]. My passion for information (and probably my path to graduate studies) comes from the same place that leads to missing gist. I can acknowledge and accept both of these parts of myself.