Imagine you’re at the beach. The right side of your brain registers brown grains of sand, gray ones, white ones, tan ones, black ones… “Hellooo!” the left side says. “It’s a beach!”
But what if the left side didn’t tell you it was a beach? That’s sort of how animal behaviorist and autistic celebrity Temple Grandin describes being autistic. Lots of Polaroid snapshots scattered about. Fewer brain “managers” sweeping them into perfect little piles.
Grandin says that animals also think like autistic savants, a theory she popularized in her book Animals in Translation.
But this week in the journal PLoS Biology neuroscientists argue that animals have brains similar to those of non-autistic humans—they take in lots of juicy stimuli, sift through, and draw a cohesive picture. They say this selective filtering process is as essential to animals as it is to us.
The authors agree that some animals have extraordinary, savant-like cognitive powers—Clark’s woodpecker can locate over 1000 pine nut stashes, for example—but they say these brilliant birds are simply well adapted, and don’t suffer other cognitive impairments typical in human autistic savants.
This week's podcast guest hosted by Christopher Intagliata, an intern for Scientific American Mind.