Saturday, February 27, 2010

Art, Abstracting, and Autism

Temple Grandin's TED talk is well worth including here on Blog Time Passing, as it touches upon several topics of interest, not the least of which is autism.  Grandin is probably the most famous individual to have been diagnosed with autism, and as her case is a mild one, she has been able to communicate a great deal about her condition.  

As she puts it, she thinks in pictures, visually rather than verbally, and that many like her have a similar preference for art over language.  While Grandin is not an artist herself, and there is more of an emphasis on science and technology (geeks, as she puts it), she also notes how visual thinkers like herself can communicate with pictures, and have a facility for the visual arts, and how some can even draw in perspective with no prior training (a technique that otherwise was only developed in the west, and has been associated with alphabetic literacy).  

She mentions Vincent Van Gogh, who has been identified as probably autistic, and how his Starry Night has been shown to accurately reflect weather patterns, and that reminded me of how my friend and colleague Ed Wachtel did his own bit of pattern recognition and produced a visual mash-up of the painting and the Weather Channel, which I reported on in a blog post a could of years ago (see Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map).

Her talk here connects to one of the central points in general semantics, the process of abstracting, that is, that we perceive only part of what is out there in reality, and then use words to refer to only part of what we perceive, and with words we can move to higher and higher levels of abstraction by leaving out increasingly more details and using increasingly more general categories or statements.  

Grandin discusses how the autistic mind tends to prefer a lower level of abstracting, visual rather than verbal.  Indeed, I am confident that she would identify general semantics founder Alfred Korzybski as having autistic genes, as she puts it in the video (and this is meant in a positive way, in case there's any doubt, and I should also add that I have no doubt that I have them myself).

Grandin also points to an aspect of abstracting that I've discussed before as a much needed addition to general semantics, the mode of abstracting.  The distinction between verbal and visual is not just a matter of level, it's a matter of qualitatively different modes.  She also notes the difference between visual thinkers who focus on detail (photo realistic visual thinkers she calls them), and those who pick out patterns.  These are two different kinds of nonverbal thinking, and you might say that the pattern thinkers function on a higher level of abstracting, but it is also true that they represent two different modes of abstracting, the detail thinkers leaving the whole out of the part, the pattern thinkers leaving the part out of the whole.

This also relates to the distinctions between discursive and presentational symbols that Susanne Langer makes, or between digital and analogical  communication made by Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, et al.  While there are important nuances, the basic dichotomy corresponds to  verbal and visual thinking, which in turn is favored by the left and right hemispheres of the brain, respectively.  That relationship was explored by Marshall McLuhan, and after him by the late Leonard Shlain.  

This also relates to the work of Howard Gardner on different kinds of intelligences, which includes not just visual and verbal, but mathematical, biological, and social and emotional.  Different kinds of intelligences are related to different styles of thinking, and are related to different modes, codes, and media of communication.  

And I love Grandin's message that we need all kinds of thinkers.  I couldn't agree more, it's diversity that is associated with success, whether it's biological within a species, or social and psychological within a society.
All of this makes this TED talk relevant for the field of media ecology, and I quote Temple Grandin on visual thinking, and include a discussion of autism as a case study, in my own book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study.  But of course you knew that, and already have a copy, right?

Anyway, let's hear from Temple now, okay?

So, if you want to learn more about her, you can check out Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page, which focuses on her work with livestock, as well as Dr. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website.  She's called Dr. Grandin because she has a PhD, in animal science, and she's a professor at Colorado State University (if you know anything about academia, you know that there are a lot of autistic genes distributed among the faculty).  She's also the subject of a recent HBO movie, called Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, and I think it's worth a view.

It is instructive to contrast Grandin's view that we need all kinds of different minds, to what is said in a recent report coming out of the University of Leeds, entitled Research Builds on Genetic Link to Autism and Schizophrenia.  The report begins with the following sentence:  "A genetic link between schizophrenia and autism is enabling researchers to study the effectiveness of drugs used to treat both illnesses. [yeah, I added the emphasis, you bet I did]"  

Illnesses?  I'm sure Temple Grandin would disagree, and other individuals have been very forceful in arguing that autism is neither a disease, nor a disorder or disability that needs to be cured or fixed, or eliminated.  This came up in a conference on autism at Fordham University that I took part in a few years ago, as reported in my blog entry, Autism and Advocacy.

Word choice aside, I do find it interesting to see the reference to a genetic link between autism and schizophrenia.  Before autism was identified by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, it was often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.  And while the two are quite different indeed, there does seem to be a spectrum (as Grandin mentions in the video), and beyond the autism spectrum itself, a wider spectrum that links autism to ADD and ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Tourette's Syndrome, and more, with connections as well to Alzheimer's Disease.

Is schizophrenia a different kind of thinking that we need, or a form of suffering that needs to be alleviated?   Such issues are difficult to grapple with, but the basic rule of thumb would have to be whether individuals are a threat to others, to themselves, and whether they are happy with their condition or not.  In the case of autism, it's quite clear how there is a very thin line between genius and dysfunction (or perhaps no line as well), and this ambiguity extends, at least somewhat, to schizophrenia as well.

From the point of view of parents wanting to help their children, especially to enable them to take care of themselves and live independently, which many individuals diagnosed with autism cannot do, research such as this study being conducted at Leeds does hold out some hope.  The trick is to balance this out with the need to accommodate and encourage different kinds of thinking and different kinds of minds, and different kinds of individuals.  

Indeed, the trick is to make a world where everyone can develop to their full potential, along their own path, and where the most helpless members of our society can live safely and securely, cared for with compassion and understanding.

But any kind of mind can understand that, right?


Bruce I. Kodish said...

Korzybski discussed different modes of abstraction, eg. visual vs. auditory vs. kinesthetic, etc. in S&S and elsewhere but didn't use the term 'modes' of abstraction. In not having a distinctive term, his distinctions remained less implicit and less clear. It seems to me a genuine enhancement of his system to have that term and elaborate it further as you have begun to do.

I'm writing now about the period in which he wrote his essay "What I Believe" (1947 and early 1948), where one can find some very pertinent material on the importance of the "silent levels" of abstracting and visualization:
"There is a tremendous difference in 'thinking' in verbal terms, and 'contemplating', inwardly silent, on non-verbal levels, and then searching for the proper structure of language to fit the supposedly discovered structure of the silent processes that modern science tries to find. If we 'think' verbally we act as biased observers and project the structure of the language we use, and so remain in our rut of old orientations, making keen, unbiased, observations and creative work well-nigh impossible. In contrast, when we 'think' without words, or in pictures (which involve structure and therefore relations), we may discover new aspects and relations on silent levels, and so may produce important theoretical results in the general search for a similarity of structure between the two levels, silent and verbal. Practically all important advances are made that way." ["What I Believe," in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, pp. 652-653]

Bruce I. Kodish said...

Whoops! I intended to say that Korzybski not having the term "modes of abstraction", made his distinguishing of those modes LESS EXPLICIT (thereby MORE IMPLICIT) and thus less clear.

Always the danger of pushing the send button too soon!

Lance Strate said...

Thank you, Bruce. Saying that it's a "genuine enhancement of his system" means a lot to me, coming as it does from the world's leading authority on Alfred Korzybski.

Alicia C. said...

HBO's Temple Grandin movie was excellent. I think it will be up for an Emmy.
The way her memory works is amazing, at least how they portrayed it in the movie.