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natmackow's picture

Thinking in Pictures

    In class this week we discussed that while sensory signals constrain what you can experience, they don’t fully define it. The nervous system interprets what we see and how we see it. The brain constructs the world around us, given visual or auditory input. So how do we know that what we’re seeing is really true? Is there any “correct” way of seeing the world?
   Autistic individuals have been known to see or feel things differently, and more visually than other individuals. This does not mean that their eyes “see” differently, but rather that their brains interpret information differently and that this information is integrated into the brain with perhaps a greater connection to their thoughts. Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has a Ph.D in animal science and works to design more humane methods of holding livestock, has described herself as a “visual thinker”. In her novel, Thinking in Pictures, she says,
    “Spatial words such as "over" and "under" had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory. Even now, when I hear the word "under" by itself, I automatically picture myself getting under the cafeteria tables at school during an air-raid drill, a common occurrence on the East Coast during the early fifties. {…} Adverbs often trigger inappropriate images -- "quickly" reminds me of Nestlé’s Quik -- unless they are paired with a verb, which modifies my visual image. {…} As a child, I left out words such as "is," "the," and "it," because they had no meaning by themselves. Similarly, words like "of," and "an" made no sense. Eventually I learned how to use them properly, because my parents always spoke correct English and I mimicked their speech patterns. To this day certain verb conjugations, such as "to be," are absolutely meaningless to me.”
    Temple’s experience with visualizing words, concepts, memories, innovations, and in effect her entire world, is similar to many individuals with autism. They seem to understand better what they see (and the images their brains are capable of creating) than what they hear in conversation, or school (what we define as language). Perhaps the visual processing areas of the brain are fortified by stronger and vaster connections in autistic individuals and this leads them to rely on and think more using vision over language. There do seem to be certain advantages to thinking visually, as Temple is able to map her innovations in every possible situation, with different sizes of livestock and different variables. She can visualize mistakes in her designs and correct them, before finally writing them down on paper. She is very attuned to the behaviors of animals as well. But there are also advantages to being able to think with words, (for example, the ability to connect with other human beings). What causes the pictures seen by the eyes and interpreted by the brains of autistic individuals to be more vivid, more thoroughly integrated and more deeply relied upon in these individuals?

Here is a link to the first chapter of Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures.
Here's a link to the trailer for the movie they've made about her life. She is a fantastic woman and is considered a leader in animal welfare and autism rights campaigns.


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