Some animal behavior is similar to autistic savants: Extreme memory and specialized cognition

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

I mentioned at the beginning of this book that I think animal genius is probably the same thing as autistic savantry. I've felt this way for years, just from being around animals and observing them, and I mentioned it in Thinking in Pictures. But I didn't know why autistic genius and animal genius looked so similar to me, or whether autistic genius and animal genius might come from the same difference in the brain.

It's not that autistic savants and animal savants do the same things. Animal savants show brilliance when they learn complicated migratory routes after just one flight or discover how to perceive seizures before they happen. Autistic savants do lightning-fast calendar or prime number calculations inside their heads, or become artistic savants who can make almost perfect line drawings of buildings and landscapes from memory, often starting from a very young age -- and using perfect perspective. That's especially amazing, because even great artists have to be taught how to draw using perspective. A four-year-old autistic savant just naturally knows how to do it.

Even though autistic savantry and animal savantry seem so different on the surface, the one thing that did jump out was that a lot of these talents involve amazing feats of rote memory. Autistic people are known for their ability to memorize whole train schedules, the capitals of every country in the world, and so on. Autistic savants are the only people who seem like they could give a Clark's nutcracker a run for its money when it comes to remembering where they hid thirty thousand pine seeds. But beyond that, I didn't know why animal genius felt so familiar to me.

Snyder and Mitchell say that the reason autistic people see the pieces of things is that they have privileged access to lower levels of raw information. A normal person doesn't become conscious of what he's looking at until after his brain has composed the sensory bits and pieces into wholes. An autistic savant is conscious of the bits and pieces.

That's why autistic savants can make perspective drawings without being taught how. They're drawing what they see, which is all the little changes in size and texture that tell you one object is closer up and another object is farther away. Normal people can't see all those little changes without a lot of training and effort, because their brains process them unconsciously. So normal people are drawing what they "see," which is the finished object, after their brains have put it all together. Normal people don't draw a dog, they draw a concept of a dog. Autistic people draw the dog.

I also believe that most or even all of the savant talents animals have are variations on the hidden figure ability, and in just the past couple of years Dr. Snyder and Dr. Bruce Miller, a physician at the University of California at San Francisco, have supplied some hard evidence that I may be right. Dr. Miller works with patients who have a disorder called frontotemporal dementia in which the front part of the brain progressively loses its functions. In frontotemporal dementia the frontal lobes and the temporal lobes, which are at the side of your head, are affected. Neither of these areas is working well in autistic people either, and as I've been saying throughout this book, the biggest area of difference between the animal brain and the human brain is that an animal's frontal lobes are smaller and less well developed than a human's. Serious frontal lobe damage is worse than being autistic. If your frontal lobes are badly damaged you can have symptoms of practically all the psychiatric disorders -- autism, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe mood disorders, you name it.

You're probably going to have at least some autistic symptoms. We know that Dr. Miller's patients do, because some of them start to develop savant talents. A few of these people have become artists in their fifties and sixties, even winning awards in art shows. Others have developed musical abilities; one patient invented a chemical detector and got a patent for it. When he made his invention he could name only one out of fifteen objects on a standardized word test. A patient who had lost all his language ability designed sprinklers! These patients had sudden-onset talents.

I suspect what's happening with these people is that all of a sudden they're able to have the same kind of hyper-specific perception that underlies an autistic savant's ability to do a calendar calculation or make a perspective drawing without being taught.

Dr. Snyder has now begun to test the proposition that savant talents come from conscious access to the raw data of the brain. When he uses magnetic stimulation to interfere with frontal lobe functioning in his subjects, they start to make much more detailed drawings than they could just moments before. They also get better at proofreading.

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