Frames /sing

kvond

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow

In addendum to the thoughts begun below, here is a film portion on Temple Grandin, and a selection from her Thinking In Pictures:

I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.

Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter. I have worked for many major livestock companies. In fact, one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment I have designed. Some of the people I’ve worked for don’t even know that their systems were designed by someone with autism. I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it.

One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills. When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently. At meetings and at work I started asking other people detailed questions about how they accessed information from their memories. From their answers I learned that my visualization skills far exceeded those of most other people…

…I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together. I have video memories of every item I’ve ever worked with — steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so forth. To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole. My design ability keeps improving as I add more visual images to my library. I add video-like images from either actual experiences or translations of written information into pictures. I can visualize the operation of such things as squeeze chutes, truck loading ramps, and all different types of livestock equipment. The more I actually work with cattle and operate equipment, the stronger my visual memories become….

…Being autistic, I don’t naturally assimilate information that most people take for granted. Instead, I store information in my head as if it were on a CD-ROM disc. When I recall something I have learned, I replay the video in my imagination. The videos in my memory are always specific; for example, I remember handling cattle at the veterinary chute at Producer’s Feedlot or McElhaney Cattle Company. I remember exactly how the animals behaved in that specific situation and how the chutes and other equipment were built. The exact construction of steel fenceposts and pipe rails in each case is also part of my visual memory. I can run these images over and over and study them to solve design problems.

If I let my mind wander, the video jumps in a kind of free association from fence construction to a particular welding shop where I’ve seen posts being cut and Old John, the welder, making gates. If I continue thinking about Old John welding a gate, the video image changes to a series of short scenes of building gates on several projects I’ve worked on. Each video memory triggers another in this associative fashion, and my daydreams may wander far from the design problem. The next image may be of having a good time listening to John and the construction crew tell war stories, such as the time the backhoe dug into a nest of rattlesnakes and the machine was abandoned for two weeks because everybody was afraid to go near it…

…For example, many people see a generalized generic church rather than specific churches and steeples when they read or hear the word “steeple.” Their thought patterns move from a general concept to specific examples. I used to become very frustrated when a verbal thinker could not understand something I was trying to express because he or she couldn’t see the picture that was crystal clear to me. Further, my mind constantly revises general concepts as I add new information to my memory library. It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer. My mind readily accepts the new “software,” though I have observed that some people often do not readily accept new information.

Unlike those of most people, my thoughts move from video like, specific images to generalization and concepts. For example, my concept of dogs is inextricably linked to every dog I’ve ever known. It’s as if I have a card catalog of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school. The next Great Dane I visualize is Helga, who was Dansk’s replacement. The next is my aunt’s dog in Arizona, and my final image comes from an advertisement for Fitwell seat covers that featured that kind of dog. My memories usually appear in my imagination in strict chronological order, and the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane…

…Autistics have problems learning things that cannot be thought about in pictures. The easiest words for an autistic child to learn are nouns, because they directly relate to pictures. Highly verbal autistic children like I was can sometimes learn how to read with phonics. Written words were too abstract for me to remember, but I could laboriously remember the approximately fifty phonetic sounds and a few rules. Lower-functioning children often learn better by association, with the aid of word labels attached to objects in their environment. Some very impaired autistic children learn more easily if words are spelled out with plastic letters they can feel.

Spatial words such as “over” and “under” had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory. Even now, when I hear the word “under” by itself, I automatically picture myself getting under the cafeteria tables at school during an air-raid drill, a common occurrence on the East Coast during the early fifties. The first memory that any single word triggers is almost always a childhood memory. I can remember the teacher telling us to be quiet and walking single-file into the cafeteria, where six or eight children huddled under each table. If I continue on the same train of thought, more and more associative memories of elementary school emerge. I can remember the teacher scolding me after I hit Alfred for putting dirt on my shoe. All of these memories play like videotapes in the VCR in my imagination. If I allow my mind to keep associating, it will wander a million miles away from the word “under,” to submarines under the Antarctic and the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine.” If I let my mind pause on the picture of the yellow submarine, I then hear the song. As I start humming the song and get to the part about people coming on board, my association switches to the gangway of a ship I saw in Australia.

I also visualize verbs. The word “jumping” triggers a memory of jumping hurdles at the mock Olympics held at my elementary school. Adverbs often trigger inappropriate images — “quickly” reminds me of Nestle’s Quik — unless they are paired with a verb, which modifies my visual image. For example, “he ran quickly” triggers an animated image of Dick from the first-grade reading book running fast, and “he walked slowly” slows the image down. As a child, I left out words such as “is,” “the,” and “it,” because they had no meaning by themselves. Similarly, words like “of,” and “an” made no sense. Eventually I learned how to use them properly, because my parents always spoke correct English and I mimicked their speech patterns. To this day certain verb conjugations, such as “to be,” are absolutely meaningless to me.

When I read, I translate written words into color movies or I simply store a photo of the written page to be read later. When I retrieve the material, I see a photocopy of the page in my imagination. I can then read it like a Teleprompter. It is likely that Raymond, the autistic savant depicted in the movie Rain Man, used a similar strategy to memorize telephone books, maps, and other information. He simply photocopied each page of the phone book into his memory. When he wanted to find a certain number, he just scanned pages of the phone book that were in his mind. To pull information out of my memory, I have to replay the video. Pulling facts up quickly is sometimes difficult, because I have to play bits of different videos until I find the right tape. This takes time.

When I am unable to convert text to pictures, it is usually because the text has no concrete meaning. Some philosophy books and articles about the cattle futures market are simply incomprehensible. It is much easier for me to understand written text that describes something that can be easily translated into pictures. The following sentence from a story in the February 21, 1994, issue of Time magazine, describing the Winter Olympics figure-skating championships, is a good example: “All the elements are in place — the spotlights, the swelling waltzes and jazz tunes, the sequined sprites taking to the air.” In my imagination I see the skating rink and skaters. However, if I ponder too long on the word “elements,” I will make the inappropriate association of a periodic table on the wall of my high school chemistry classroom. Pausing on the word “sprite” triggers an image of a Sprite can in my refrigerator instead of a pretty young skater.

Taking up Wittgenstein’s notion of Rule Following, and its correction from below, nothing of our linguistic observerance, our interacting with Temple Grandin need serve as the corrective to her rule-followings. She merely can imagine her pens and runs, build them, and look at them working or not, without any aid from public normal language. Our seeing them work or not, is not a matter of her “potentially private thought (language)” becoming “public”, but simply a matter of our own pattern recognitions, that is “private” in the sense of subjectivity, judging her behaviours. None of this gives us a public knowledge or translation of her subjective language.

(A non-linguistic person, in the standard sense, could mutely just build these things, and we could see if they work nor not, and this “seeing” would not be a “translation” of a language”. The rule-following that such a person experiences, the moment to moment yes/no of decision, would not be “known” in any public sense, even though we could discuss the results.)

An autistic might very well design things that can never, and will never be built or discussed about, but still have “knowledge” of these things, subjectively, in that the “rule-following” that governs them is part of a larger over-riding conception of how things work. In the end Wittgenstein distinction between seeming to and actually follow rules, does not appear to exist in these. It is exactly for this reason that Amanda’s conversations with water need no “public” confirmation, to be “actual” rule-following.

To put it another way, the problem, the core problem, is that checking one’s impression of folllowing a rule is not at all like buying several copies of the same newspaper; (how clever Wittgenstein is at saying things that seem utterly profound, but lack application, back to the rough ground). It lacks the temporal and consequential aspect. There indeed is a difference between thinking one is following a rule, and realizing that one was not (in the past). But when you currently make your assessment of past rule-followings, you still have no ground yet to know if you are currently following a rule properly, or only imagining that you are. Only subsequent looking-backs and recontextualizations will tell you. The applications of rules does not contain a logical difference between the two states, that is, one that can be settled. Instead one simply revises rules, or the impression that one was following them, as one goes. Temple Grandin is not merely buying copies of the same paper when she constructs mental models of things she would like to build. She has no need of a lingustic being telling her that she followed them or not, whether she made a mistake, and only apparently followed rules. There is nothing public about her process of revisement (which is not to say that the products of her rule following cannot be discussed or that beliefs cannot be formed about it). It means that the very fine point of whether one is following a rule, or only seeming to, has no ultimate external referent. The difference between “correct” and “incorrect” is internal to Temple Grandin’s process. There is no rule for how to follow a rule.

 

 

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