vs. Big Picture: Who Gets What?
Some neuropsychologists and special educators are forever
talking about those who can’t see the forest for
the trees. Freud might have a field day with that. Those
with NLD are, for example, supposed to be tree viewers
and forest-blind, but is that true?
One classic measure of the forest/tree dichotomy is a
gigantic letter H that is composed of little T’s.
One shows that to a child and then takes it away. Next,
the child is shown an H and a T and is asked which one
looks more like what he just saw.
T T T T T
Susan would say H. She is a big picture person (see right
brain vs. left brain discussion). But she would see only
the H because she would move far, far away from it, so
as to be able to ignore all the pieces, all the busy-ness,
all the horrid little Ts. Why? Because looking at all those
T’s (all the little pieces and trying to process
them) hurts Susan’s head. She would do everything
she could to blur them away, block them out. She craves
the whole picture always and cannot find it by trying to
juggle pieces or fit them together. She needs to grasp
the whole, whole.
If she was forced to stand up close to all those little
Ts, to avoid the feeling that her head was spinning round
and round she would try to block out all the busy-ness
and focus on just one T. She would force herself to see
one T as her “whole,” her forest. So a child
who did not know the strategy of standing back far enough
to blur the pieces together to form a whole might take
a different route, constructing a whole from one T and
blurring out all the rest. The processing problem, you
see, may have nothing to do with not knowing or craving
the “whole.” It may instead be that some get
to the whole by constructing it from pieces and others
cannot do that; they need to grasp the whole, whole. The
pieces just get in the way.
As Susan experiences this problem, it is the “pieces” that
get in the way. It is the “pieces” she does
not understand. It is the whole that she can grasp, but
NOT if the pieces are too obvious, too intrusive–not
if the pieces do not lend themselves to blurring out, so
that the whole can emerge.
Is it helpful or accurate to describe someone who is always searching for the
big picture, who hates the trees (the pieces) and is forever lost in them,
as one who has trouble with the big picture.
No, it is harmful and inaccurate. Harmful because it
suggests that one is not “smart.” (See also
discussion of abstract vs. concrete thinking.) And inaccurate
because it is the pieces that are the source of confusion,
not the big picture. The mistake here is beginning with
the assumption that the “normal” brain is the
brain that gets to the big picture by compiling pieces.
But another way of processing is possible: skipping the
pieces, blurring them out and grasping quickly and accurately,
the whole. The forest people do it that way.