(First installment, Nature's 1st Aha Moment, at http://ahauniverse.weebly.com/blog/first-aha-moment)
Temple views autism “as a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans” (Animals in Translation, p. 6). Here is one example from Temple’s life that she uses to shed insight on how animals might think. One day while driving, an elk ran out in front of Temple’s car. Three images flashed into her mind representing three different possible responses. Image 1: A car rear-ending her was related to the action of slamming on her brakes. Image 2: The elk crashing through the windshield was related to the action of swerving. Image 3: The elk passing in front of her car was related to the action of just slowing down. She chose the third image—the desirable outcome—and the associated action executed to achieve the outcome. From this experience and others, Temple believes that perhaps animals can think in much the same way.
Temple claims to think in pictures. She is also able to use words to communicate, but that is not her primary mode of thinking. When the word ‘steeple’ is spoken, for example, her inner experience is as if you typed in ‘steeple’ into Google Images. Many steeples that she has experienced stream through her mind. Temple is able to manipulate her images. For example, she can change the color of a specific steeple or transplant a specific steeple from one church building onto another.
Temple believes that people with severe autism have no ability to manipulate their images. They are basically stuck in their perceptions (present) and memories (past) and unable to modify or generalize them. Consequently, they exhibit rigid, non-flexible, non-creative behavior.
It would seem then that animals’ sensorimotor systems might derive one or more plans and communicate the plans in mental images. One mental image might induce fear and trigger the associated action plan. Another mental image might induce desire and trigger its associated plan. In this way, cognitively sophisticated animals use their emotions to choose between options without the use of analysis or deduction. Less sophisticated animals may craft fewer plans to choose from and may have less freedom to resist responding to strong emotions. In essence, based on Temple Grandin’s experiences, the sensorimotor systems of animals are sufficient to provide the ability to choose between multiple responses.
In the next installment, we look at the neural evidence of how memory (a perceptual reconstruction) and future thinking (a perceptual construction of a possible future event) are almost neurally indistinguishable. The neural evidence will help us conclude that early problem solving in mammals is a special form of future thinking.
Direct comments and questions to Dr. Tony McCaffrey (email@example.com).