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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Do Animals Have Feelings....Do Autists?

A recent article in MIND (Scientific American February/March 2006 issue), discusses scientists who debate the issue about whether animals not only have emotions, but are aware of their emotions. It is this self-awareness and reflection that connotes an emotional sophistication akin to humans.

Charles Darwin was the first to devote an entire book on the topic, The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals and concluded “striking similarities between human and animal behavior.” Later, reductionists stated that “all animals are merely organisms that follow hardwired, instinctual behavior patterns. They are devoid of feelings.” (p.26)

This statement resonates with similarities to our scientific community studying autism today. From Hans Asperger to Simon Baron Cohen’s mind-blindness theory (see Zilari's post on the topic) to recently Joseph Buxbaum’s rather sinister personal response to my blog, the person with autism is reduced to a subset of component parts. By looking in too closely, some scientists cease to see the forest for the trees.

Antionio Damasio who wrote Looking for Spinoza, cites the difference between social and instinctive emotions. He notes that feelings stem from self-reflection. “Primary emotions include fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness and joy, and Damasio ascribes them to many animals….To Damasio and many others, emotions are physical signals of the body responding to stimuli, and feelings are sensations that arise as the brain interprets those emotions…For social emotions, he lists sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, envy, jealousy, gratitude, admiration, contempt and indignation.” (p.27) Some scientists believe that these emotions are largely automatic and inborn – “routinized mechanisms to help them survive.”

Sound familiar?

Feelings, the article states, are born of awareness of the body’s response to emotions and an ability to self-reflect on those emotions. “Damasio theorizes that pygmy chimpanzees, for example, may be able to show the social emotion of pity for other animals but that they do not realize they are exhibiting pity.” (p.28) This sounds like current autism theory “children are unable to attribute the beliefs of others.” Or taken further, people who claim that people with autism are unable of feeling empathy.

In response to that theory, I think about Dawn Prince Hughes who has Aspergers, and her learning of herself through her Gorillas in Songs of a Gorilla Nation. Here she speaks of one Gorilla she names Nina:

“…She stood up and with a flourish snapped the burlap from her neck, then let it billow out before her while she held two of its corners between her thumbs and fingers….She spread it out on the grass and smoothed out the wrinkles. When the material was perfectly flat, Nina eased herself down in the middle of her picnic blanket and looked up to the keeper after letting out a long sigh. She seemed suddenly self-conscious as she noticed the look on my face. It had been an incredibly involved set of steps, and we were awestruck.” (p.126)

Hughes not only observed the Gorillas and decoded many of their complex social and emotional nuances, but she came to learn about herself through them:

Very cautiously, I tried to apply the things I’d learned from the gorillas in social situations. I tried to put people at ease by acknowledging them with quick sideways glances and smiles – which evolved from submissive primate grimaces and are intended to convey that no harm is meant.” (p.134)

Here is another example:

“…Eventually I showed him the contents of my lunch…He pointed to the bottle. Still feeling stupid, I shoved the bottle against the window and shrugged my shoulders – it wouldn’t fit through, I tried to say. He pointed to the wall where the keeper threw his treats. He knew the trail led to a secret area close to where I sat. He raised his eyebrows. `Walk up there and throw it down to me…what kind of stupid gorilla are you, anyway?’ he seemed to say.

I shook my head and pointed to my seat and notes, a feeble attempt to demonstrate my duties. He turned his body away from me and reached back to bank the window with his fist, pursed his lips, let out a raspberry, and then pointedly ignored me. Occasionally, he would turn to look over his shoulder and purse his lips in my direction. He didn’t need to say it in English; I knew what was going through his mind.

This was one of the first times I remember knowing for certain what another person was thinking and feeling, and that my actions were a direct cause of their subjective experience. Something about the directness of his communication, combined with the honesty of his body language and his emotions, painted a kind of consistent and forthright picture that allowed for a moment of communication that was, paradoxically, more intense and more subtle than that of a human person. It demanded that I stay engaged until the moment had resolved with both of us as participators. It is clear to me that not only do apes have a language that is complex and holistic, but by communicating with us, they illustrate that it may be we who are less skilled at the art of sharing true subjective experience.” (p.136)

This is obviously the problem of humankind – our arrogance and delusion of superiority over other species and even, other humans.

The article in MIND, notes that feelings such as joy arise from the mind’s awareness in bodily emotions. Sumatran “orangutans swing from branches and splash their hands into pools of water for no apparent purpose than just for the fun of it.” (p. 29). Studies show that brain metabolism for animals is not very different from those in humans. In the end, it is still “not possible to prove whether an animal possesses conscious feelings [any more] than we can be sure about what another person is truly experiencing.” (p. 29)

Again, science has no slam-dunk answer. I posit that there are elusive things in life that simply aren’t measurable through fMRI’s, namely the complex process of imagination, perception, emotion and self-awareness. While we may see areas of the brain fired up in response to certain stimuli, the complex ingredients of being human can never entirely be distilled. For to distill them is to reduce humanity to component parts.

It could be said that we have Damasio approach to understanding autism – how people with autism think and feel to an extent that some scientists reduce the person to a mere organism, and an aberration of nature at that. The approach is disturbing when it splices characteristics of our children into little bits, and those little bits are INTERPRETED by the scientist, hence subjective and often wrong.

I will argue that there is no such thing as empirical science -- it has been argued before. Go on line and take a look at some of the research projects going on out there. Every abstract, every project is subject to the scientist’s bias, presentation of stimuli, environment…it is so difficult to obtain an unbiased view. At least an artist, a scientist of sorts, and in my view a better expert of what makes up the sea of mankind, admits to viewing the world through a set of inherited lenses.

Science is still filled with fallibility, subjectivity, and judgment. One theory in science and in art will always supercede another. We will forever be changing our view of the universe. May the arguments continue so that we can stay true.


Anonymous Henny said...

Great post. Great link to "truth" although I'm struggling with "Semantic Theory". Is "Schnee ist weiss" an absolute? I saw some that was yellow.

Happy Valentine's Day to Boo Boo and the Bear.


Love Me and Maddie

7:07 PM  
Blogger Christine said...


Your writing is always so thought-provoking!

Your comments about how theorists tend to reduce our children to their parts and then offer what amounts to a subjective interpretation for how those parts fit -- or don't fit -- together, really resonates with me.

The danger in this is that parents, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, may take this for gospel since it is, after all, coming from the "experts". A quick scan of the internet offers no real critical analysis of Simon Baron Cohen’s mind-blindness theory. How frustrating!!

10:30 AM  
Anonymous CreditThinker said...

Wonderful point about parents trusting those "experts" on the internet. Some of their articles have nothing to do with science! Of course, there is some judgement and subjectiveness in any research (I would never use such a term as 'ubbiased truth') but some of the stuff you can get online is simply rudiculous!

5:03 AM  

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