Big picture

Image by Jon Adams, with comment from Simon Baron-Cohen. E-mail ideas for ‘Big picture’ to [email protected]

‘A mind that can’t help spotting patterns'

When artist Jon Adams, who has Asperger syndrome, met psychologist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen on stage at the Cheltenham Science Festival, a collaboration was born. ‘I’m still learning how Jon thinks,’ Baron-Cohen says, ‘but I am impressed at how he takes a way of thinking in one domain (e.g. geological time) and then translates it to another one (e.g. a walk through time). It may be that that will actually give us a new way of looking at things.’

‘228 is part of my project for the Cultural Olympiad,’ says Adams. ‘For two years I’ve written a map of everything I’ve done each day, and collected objects, photographs and sounds snatches. I was sitting in the print room at the University and there were a load of bits of print waste on the floor so I took some close-up photographs.

I also found some interesting rust patterns on the deck of a ship so I took photographs of those too. 228 is a mix of both. It’s like, if you go to a geological locality, you not only measure what is there, you also take samples away to cut up, polish down and put under a microscope. That’s what I do.’

Baron-Cohen comments: ‘What comes across in this picture’ is Jon's attention to small details and his unusual way of seeing the world. He loves patterns and sees them everywhere. As he has explained to me, sometimes patterns help him do science (like understanding why particular stones are where they are, or why a particular hill is where it is); sometimes patterns help him make music (like deciding to take a particular sound, run it through a computer program in a very systematic way, to see what the output is), and sometimes patterns help him make pictures (like seeing how an ordinary process such as rust on metal can nevertheless result in exquisite shapes, colours and textures, as in this image). Imagine a mind that can’t help spotting patterns – that's Jon's mind. Now imagine what you do with such a mind. You could either be overwhelmed (which he sometimes is), or you could decide to use that talent to explain to the world: “I am different”. I'm delighted Jon is choosing this educational path.’

Adams is one of the artists in the ‘Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience’ exhibition, at the O3 Gallery, Oxford Castle, Oxford, 2–31 March. See

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