Human Intentions, Animal Threats, and Autism

Temple Grandin points out that autistic people tend to live in a state of anxiety and fear much like a prey animal does (as do people with PTSD, who have also been made to feel like they’re constantly being hunted). Of course, primates are all prey animals, with only a few also predators, so it’s perhaps not surprising that we all feel this at some point. But autistic people feel this all the time.

For this reason an article in the Journal of Neuroscience that shows that evaluating animal threats and human intentions uses a common brain network is particularly fascinating.

It turns out that in humans the  brain network that assesses animal threats is the same one that assesses human intentions and identifies faces. One of the primary features of people on the spectrum is that they don’t like to look people in the eye. If autistic people have a more neotenous brain, meaning they have some more primitive features, we should not be surprised if autistic people process information in a more primitive way. Meaning, in this case, that rather than evaluating human intentions and identifying faces, we are evaluating threats.

Perhaps not coincidentally, when humans look someone in the eye, the brain rewards itself, but when animals look each other in the eye, the brain essentially punishes itself, so the animal looks away. For social mammals especially, looking another in the eye is a challenge. That is, it’s threatening.

Would it surprise you that autistic brains are wired to punish when they look someone in the eye?

With this discovery, it seems we have the mechanism itself. And that mechanism also manages to explain the feelings of anxiety and fear. And it manages to support my idea that the autistic brain is a neotenous brain. The retention of earlier traits can involve not just actual infant traits, but developmentally, evolutionarily earlier traits. Traits such as these, where you have a vague sense that everything around you is a potential threat.

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