Monday, June 27, 2011

Mentally Challenged - Was It Bad Hardware, Bad Software or Bad Data?

I'm pretty good at keeping my composure, and it got tested recently at the grocery store. I pushed my cart into a checkout stall where a woman was completing her purchase. She had checked everything through and all her groceries were bagged and in her basket. 

But for some reason, there was no forward movement. I stood there patiently and I was soon aware that she was making small talk with the bagger boy.  I could tell he knew that progress was being held up, and he had an embarrassed look on his face, as if to say, "Who is this woman?"

To get things moving along, I entered my zip code on the keypad. That's when the woman turned around and looked at me in shock. Apparently she hadn't paid yet. 

I kept my shock to myself.

And paying would turn out to be an issue. She asked the cashier to remove $10 worth of merchandise. She didn't seem able to choose what to remove, so the cashier began a trial-and-error process, asking her, "How about this? OK, then how about this?" It was hard for the woman to make up her mind.

When they finally agreed on which items to remove, the cashier told her the total, and the woman pulled out some cash. She held her cash in front of her as if in a daze. "Can you take off $10 more?"

I could tell she had enough money, but she didn't want to spend it all. She had no idea what she was doing. She didn't know how much she wanted to spend on groceries, and she hadn't thought about that before arriving at checkout. Ultimately, the store manager came over and wheeled her away with all her groceries to resolve her problem away from the checkout line.

At no point did I feel impatient. I was too busy wondering what her problem was. Obviously, she had trouble thinking logically about what she was doing. But why?

I have a way of thinking about these issues. The brain is the part of the body that does the thinking. And people often liken the brain to a computer. In many ways, this is appropriate, but it's misleading. The brain has circuits for computing, but instead of chips and wires, they are made of human tissue: brain cells and connecting dendrites. And rather than electricity, your brain computer is powered by neurotransmitter chemicals, which produce a valence.

Nevertheless, the result is the same. Information is taken in by the senses, processed by your brain, and the result is emotion, stored information or behavior.

And oh yeah, your brain is way more powerful than any computer ever built. It's the most complex entity in the universe. There are more connections in the average brain than all the stars in the universe. Not just our galaxy, which has over 100 billion stars, but all the stars in all the billions of galaxies.

So what was her problem? She wasn't a bag lady. She was dressed smartly, as if she had just come from church. Was it a hardware problem - brain abnormality, aging, disease, drugs or injury? Was it a software problem - bad analysis, problem solving skills or planning skills? Or was it bad data - bad perceptions, information, concepts, attitudes, or assumptions? Any of these problems could have caused her to gaze blankly at the casher, as if she'd never been shopping before.

I never knew the answer. But my analysis is by itself significant. You see, any of the above problems can cause the same result and look the same to a bystander like me. She might have been mentally challenged. She might have been emotionally disturbed. She might have poorly educated or have poor cognitive skills. Maybe she just wasn't in the habit of planning ahead. Maybe she thought you just show up and the Lord will take care of the rest. She might have been short on cash and embarrassed to admit it. Whatever her real problem was, it had incapacitated her. 

And it was time for compassion, not impatience. Because there are so many ways to be mentally challenged. It reminded me that you don't have to have Alzheimer's, be high on smack, or be a stroke victim in order to act like someone who's incapable of rational thought. It could be a software problem. Or a data problem.  

The walking wounded are all around us, they're afflicted in ways we don't even acknowledge, and most of them have given no thought to improving themselves. 

Meredith M. Bell had a similar experience, with different thoughts and conclusions...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Dorie said...

I may never feel the same in a check out lane...instead of being impatient or angry, I will be wondering about the individuals situation and how that is affecting their ability to function. Thank you for opening my mind and making me think.

Anonymous said...

This helped me to think a little deeper about a friend who is bright, well-educated and a dear person, but who has a lot of trouble with being prepared and keeping up with things. I'm still not sure what is behind her particular quirk. I've known her for years (she's younger than me) and she's always had this "something not quite clicking" thing going on. Your comments on the hardware and software are helpful.