My favorite op-ed cartoon last week was a view from the aisle across faces of terrified airline passengers, with the ground approaching at a sharp angle through the window. On the P.A. system the captain was saying "You’ll never guess what somebody just wrote on my Facebook!"

             Inattention to surroundings is normal when one activity becomes so engrossing that time seems to fly. This might be how two Northwest Airlines pilots ended up over Eau Claire, Wisconsin, when they should have been landing their commercial flight in Minneapolis.

             The phenomenon known as "flow," was named by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when he was in the Department of Human Development at The University of Chicago. (He is now director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California.). His book about the subject, called ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. Flow is the subjective, psychological corollary of slowing time by affecting the space-time continuum in physics.

             Besides making future events appear to arrive more quickly, flow also masks sensory inputs – for example, causing you to overlook a half-hour of air traffic controllers’ anxious voices on a cockpit radio.

             When most people experience flow, the effects are temporary. Sufferers of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) suffer disruptions in concentration for longer periods. Unlike background voices we can ignore in order to conduct a conversation, a lot of things present ADD’ers with a distraction a lot of the time. If flow is focus to the extent of excluding the surrounding environment; and the distractibility of most people is considered average behavior; then ADD / ADHD is the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have trouble focusing at all. 

            Autism Spectrum Disorders ("ASD’s") appear poised to replace Asperger Syndrome as a mental health condition recognized in DSM-V, the soon-to-be-published latest version of the reference bible for mental health professionals. ASD’s cover the entire range of inability to process social cues — from mild impairment to total social isolation.

             The pilot who was oblivious to anything beyond his co-pilot and his laptop might view his behavior as a one-time point on a social connectedness continuum. But the analogy won’t "fly" as a legal defense.