Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Autism, Visual Thinking, and Justifying the Humanities

You may recall that Fosco has been interested in the question of whether Ben's cat Isis (and all cats, for that matter) is essentially autistic. Fosco got this idea from animal researcher Temple Grandin, who is herself autistic and finds that her condition allows her to understand animals better than neurotypical observers. (Additionally, Fosco is actually pretty impressed with Dr. Grandin's jaunty style, as seen in accompanying picture.)

Well, a couple of weeks ago, Fosco picked up (at his local library!) one of Grandin's books, Animals in Translation. Grandin makes some pretty fascinating claims in the book, relying on both her experiences and insights from neuroscience. For one thing, she provides a model of animal perception that can account for some of the stranger aspects of animal behavior (although not all of them--she still can't explain why slowly-moving fans creep out cows).

One of Grandin's claims is that she and animals both think entirely in pictures (this is not a surprise for animals--what else would they think in? Words?). Grandin tries to explain what it is like for her to do complex human cognition entirely in pictures. It all sounds completely horrible to Fosco, who is highly verbal and cannot imagine trying to do justice to Derrida or Levinas without making use of words and abstract concepts. However, Grandin wants to argue that there are indeed benefits to entirely visual thinking:

Other times thinking in pictures is an advantage. During the 1990s I knew all the dot-coms would go to hell, because when I thought about them the only images I saw were rented office space and computers that would be obsolete in two years. There wasn't anything real I could picture; the companies had no hard assets. My stockbroker asked me how I knew the two stock market crashes would happen, and I told him, 'When the Monopoly play money starts jerking around the real money you're in trouble.'
This is a cute story, of course (although maybe not one I would have left in the manuscript were I Grandin's editor). I suspect that Grandin may have profited handsomely from our recent economic troubles as well--there are certainly no good mental pictures that can represent hedge funds and credit default swaps (although: most of this bubble seems to have been based on the housing market and houses are indeed "real" and easily pictured).

But I think this anecdote raises an interesting question: in what ways is it possible to value non-concrete (i.e., not easily pictured) things? Sure, the original dot-com bubble did burst; however, this didn't mean that the web itself is completely worthless. There are still plenty of companies that are "nothing" but office space and soon-to-be-obsolete computers (like Google, perhaps)--and while Google may (or may not) be overvalued, the services it provides are not valueless.

And yet, at the same time, there is clearly an anxiety about the possibility of valuing things like knowledge, information, content, etc.--and not just for autistic people or visual thinkers. As someone who is (supposedly) in the "knowledge business," I think these issues are worth meditating on, especially as the humanities are increasingly called upon to "justify their worth" in the modern world.

You can purchase several Temple Grandin books by following these links.

Fosco will receive a small percentage and will be grateful.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's a subprime primer that explains it in pictures, although I don't think it makes us feel any better...

The BeeMaster

Word Verify: monesse
Cash gift or gifts given in a generous, or sometimes showy or patronizing, way