Temple Grandin believes “neurodivergents” can remedy how our culture got to be so “talky.” I’m curious how many will take her seriously.
These days I skim newspapers, periodicals, and social media looking for needles in a haystack. Every once in a while I find one, like Temple Grandin’s recent Guest Essay in The New York Times: Society is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All. She begins with an assumption she had early on in life: “When I was younger, I believed that everybody thought in photo-realistic pictures the same way I did, with images clicking through my mind.”
Incorrect assumption. “I had no idea that most people are more word-centric than I am,” writes Grandin. “For many, it’s words, not pictures, that shape thought. That’s probably how our culture got to be so talky: Teachers lecture, religious leaders preach, politicians make speeches and we watch ‘talking heads’ on TV. We call most of these people neurotypical—they develop along predictable lines and communicate, for the most part, verbally.”
Social scientists would say Grandin is neurodivergent—a term that she says encompasses not only autism but also dyslexia, A.D.H.D. and other learning problems. I’m pretty sure Iain McGilchrist would widen her definition to include those who bias the right hemisphere of the brain. People like me. Like Grandin, I think in pictures. McGilchrist estimates no more than five percent of our culture biases the right hemisphere.
Which is why Grandin’s piece is a needle in a haystack. She says that without a major shift in how we learn, one that values neurodivergent people and all visual thinkers, American innovation will be stifled. If you’re a Christian, that ought to be of interest to you.
The word innovate comes from the Latin innovare, meaning “to renew.” The gospel is about the renewal of all things. It seems to me Christians ought to be experts on innovation. We ought to recognize a pattern for renewal: from death comes life. Death is what Joseph Schumpeter called the gales of creative destruction. Jesus put it this way: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
I have found few are prepared to have any of their assumptions die. This includes Christians. A 2011 LinkedIn Survey places those who study theology in the middle of the pack in terms of being entrepreneurial—right there with Human Resources (ugh), education, and administration—fields not known for innovation. Few Christians understand innovation.
Which is why I’m curious how many will take Grandin’s proposals seriously. Take education. She recommends elementary and high schools emphasize hands-on classes such as art, music, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, auto mechanics and welding. Most of these hands-on classes had been removed. Reinserting them would require removing other courses since there is a finite number of courses a school can offer. Innovation would be the death knell for some courses taught by teachers who don’t want to lose their job.
Grandin also proposes that corporations and government agencies create “a neurodiverse work force. Complementary skills are the key to successful teams.” I agree. A neurodiverse work force includes visual thinkers, those bias the right hemisphere, what McGilchrist calls “prophetic.” In my experience, most businesses and government agencies operate as not-for-prophet organizations. So do churches.
Research indicates passionately religious people are most resistant to have assumptions challenged, to shifting paradigms. I call it “the God Glaze.” It’s like shellac, super-hard and shiny. Passionately religious people have super-hardened beliefs. Questioning them is tantamount to disloyalty to God, so few risk the gales of creative destruction. I get it, but in so doing Christians risk losing what Christians ought to be experts in: Innovation.
Grandin closes by noting how innovations are being risked in educational settings outside the United States, in Italy and the Netherlands, for instance. The fruits are evident in the US. When Grandin visited the Steve Jobs Theater in California, pre-Covid, she discovered that the glass walls were created by an Italian company. The massive carbon fiber roof that looks like a spaceship was imported from Dubai. These countries have cultures that include neurodivergents, visual thinkers who often imagine what ninety-five percent of our society misses. That’s why I think all leaders, Christians included, ought to take Grandin’s proposals seriously.
But we’ll have to wait and see how many do.
Great read. Insightful. Explains a lot of human behavior. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work looking for needles in haystacks.
Commentary on neurodivergents is interesting. I agree, credentialed educators made a big mistake devaluing and eliminating required classes such as art, home making (cooking, sewing) music and shop classes. Such classes encouraged students to be curious while learning basic life skills. Curiosity is often the catalyst to innovation. That said, God’s creation is articulated and communicated in words, not pictures. God’s commands were written on tablets. A well functioning society needs a responsible balance of both visual and written communication.
Mark, I appreciate your comment about words, not pictures. It’s grist for a future mill since for 2,500 years it was understood that the cosmos was articulated first in music, then pictures, and last, words. Pythagoras stumbled upon it around the fifth century BC, traditional Judaism holds that words are the language of the mind, music is the language of the soul. In the late second century AD, Clement of Alexandria held that music makes the transcendent God perceptible. In the fourth century AD, Boethius wrote that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord. Boethius’ “The Principles of Music” was so influential that it held sway for centuries thereafter. It was the standard music theory text at Oxford until 1856. C. S. Lewis graduated from Oxford with two degrees. He was under the “spell” of “words not pictures” until, in a dinner conversation, Tolkien told him the entire creation bursts into flame “in answer to eternal music.”
I’m an engineer and a large portion of our work revolves around the use of drawings to convey ideas and to describe what needs to be built (same goes for architects). I’m intrigued to read that few people think in pictures. I’d always assumed the majority of engineers and architects thought best in pictures – “a picture speaks a thousand words” and all that. But maybe not?
A good word, Mike, no pun intended. Have you seen the movie about Temple Grandin? It’s very interesting. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1278469/
Mike, for most of our friendship you have consistently encouraged those of us in the “left-brain” club to exercise the right side of our brain. During the last year, I have had the privilege of giving comments and critique on my brother Dave’s upcoming three-part documentary on the civil war of hatred between reds and blues in the USA. Of course, Dave’s expertise is in international monetarism and macroeconomics are left brain topics that defy in depth understanding when you consider the cross-cultural implications. His co-executive producer is the famous Barry Levinson who happens to be a neighbor in Annapolis’s Spa Creek. I have had a front row seat in watching a right-brain, picture oriented thinker well versed in how to “connect” with our culture interact with the left-brain club in attempting to further our deeper understanding of some complex and often nuanced implications of hatred. I have watched my brother shift gears rather remarkably with a real appreciation for the power of story and word pictures. This week much work was given to working on the movie’s trailers for upcoming promotions. When Barry sent his edited version it was so very obvious he was a pro at this and new just how much and how little to say to arouse the viewers interest in a compelling way. It humbled me to consider how undeveloped my right brain is.
When I think back on some of the more memorable influencers in my life, it was the leaders who skillfully employed word pictures that I remember clearly fifty years later. Stories are like oatmeal, they stick to your ribs.
It makes me wonder if you have considered writing fiction to convey some of the “life-messages” to which you have dedicated your life?
I read your comment Mike and am left with questions. If “music” is an articulation then what exactly are we hearing? The Rolling Stones or The Boston Symphony? Seriously: is God singing or are the angels singing? If we’re not talking about earthly instrumentation what EXACTLY are we to hear and when and how (will we have ears?)? Or will we never hear what you’re describing because your remarks are theory and non-reproduce-able or we will never hear that music because we’ll never witness creation or whatever you’re referring to? Today, we can easily take music for granted: we are 100X more over-exposed to music than Lewis (and all the other historically important people you mentioned), just 70 years ago. For Lewis music was likely a rare quality in his life so he might have been very receptive to the word “music” as a metaphor for “beauty” (or another word where “beauty” is its metaphor) when Tolkien told him that the entire creation bursts into flame “in answer to eternal music.” Frankly, I suspect words and our imaginations of music are mere shadows of what our experience will be.
Tim, in response to your question, yes, I have. But as a lover of Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Tolkien, Lewis, Dante, and so many others, including George MacDonald, the task feels a bit daunting. I’m afraid I’d be a very poor imitation of writers of fiction that have meant so much to me. Hate to dilute these rich waters. Or maybe I fear arriving in heaven only to find my heroes asking me: what in heaven’s name were you thinking?!?!?
I’ll blame it on you. As for your brother Dave and his collaboration with Barry Levinson (one of my favorite filmmakers), kudos. Very encouraging.
“not-for-prophet” – that’s good. Do punners (and poets) exercise more left- or right-brain?
I think you know the answer to that.