Sunday, December 03, 2006


I read blink not too long ago. In it was a reference to an experiment conducted at Yale by a Robert T. Schultz, where it was found that facial recognition is impaired in autism.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imagery (FMRI) to determine what parts of partipants' brains were used when distinguishing between two faces and distinguishing between two objects.

The findings identified an interesting difference between non-autistic and autistic participants.

  • When a non-austic participant tried to determine if two images were of the same face or of two different faces, they utilized a part of their brain called the fusiform gyrus. When they performed the same task on two objects, they used a different part of their brain-- the inferior temporal gyrus.
  • One could not tell which of the two tasks an autistic participant was performing by looking at their brain. In both cases, autistic participants utilized the part of their brain that the non-autistic participants used for objects alone, the inferior temporal gyrus.

Recently, I've been thinking more about this experiment.

On a return home a few weeks ago, Christian and I noticed the front door to our apartment was wide open. As we cautiously made our way in and down the hall, I caught sight of what appeared to be a little critter scuttling into our living room. I hadn't had time to determine what the little critter was, but I had been able to see that it was four legged and mostly black.

Although we were nervous that the neighborhood skunk we'd been admiring had made its way into our living space, we cautiously turned on the light and hoped for the best.

To our surprise, crouching in the middle of the room was a beautiful black cat.


After a brief moment, the cat ran out of the room, past us, to the now closed door. Upon seeing the door was shut, he turned around -- it appeared he was about to run back to where we'd found him. I blocked the entrance to the living room and instructed Christian to open the front door and stand outside so there would be nothing between the cat and his way out.

Since the cat had been watching me the whole time, he hadn't see that the previously closed front door was open once again. He stood there, frozen, looking straight up at me. After what seemed like a minute, he let out this pitiful yowl. I took a slow step toward him which was enough to get him to turn around, see his escape route, and make a run for it.


Why would this incident conjur up thoughts of the blink-referenced experiment?

Because I've been thinking about the way I think about the experience. I remember the expression on the poor cat's face, his whole demeanor in response to getting "caught", to being in an uncomfortable position. Seeing the predicament he was in, my heart went out to him...

Normally I would just chalk this up to my tendency to anthropomorphize. But what if it's that some of us are "autistic" when it comes to relating to animals, and some of us aren't? In other words, what if when interpreting animal behavior some people are in one mode (object-interpreting) while others are in another (human-interpreting)?

Would this help explain why some people are animal lovers and others aren't? Or why some people have a natural tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human beings ? Or why I grew up with every member of my family rolling their eyes whenever I enthusiastically raved about my awesome, awesome pet dog? :)


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