Do animals think like autistic savants?

February 20th, 2008 - 12:45 pm ICT by admin  

New York, Feb 20 (IANS) Animal scientist Temple Grandin’s argument that animals and autistic savants share cognitive similarities could spur a better understanding of autism. Grandin had put forth the idea in her best-selling 2005 book “Animals in Translation”, which provides an unprecedented look at the autistic mind, according to an essay in the latest edition of the journal PloS Biology.

Grandin said animals, like autistic humans, sense and respond to stimuli overlooked by ‘normal’ humans.

Sensory-based information is inherently more detailed than word-based memories. “As a person with autism, all my thoughts are in photo-realistic pictures,” she said.

“The main similarity between animal thought and my thought is the lack of verbal language,” Grandin added.

Since animals do not have verbal language, they have to store memories as pictures, sounds, or other sensory impressions, said Grandin.

The essay, by cognitive neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara and his colleagues, said: “Her (Grandin’s) extraordinary insight deserves scrutiny from scientists working in animal cognition and comparative neuroscience.”

Vallortigara argued that exceptional skills in music, math or art come at the cost of other processes. They, therefore, appear to be unrelated to the extraordinary species-specific adaptations.

The authors have also argued that the brain’s left hemisphere sets up rules based on experience. Conversely, the right hemisphere avoids rules in a bid to detect details and unique features, permitting it to differentiate between the familiar and the novel.

“This is as true for humans and animals, possibly reflecting ancient evolutionary origins of the underlying brain mechanisms,” Vallortigara said.

Grandin suggested that “further experiments need to be done with birds” to either confirm or disprove Vallortigara’s hypothesis.

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