Magazine article Science & Spirit

What Are You Looking At?

Magazine article Science & Spirit

What Are You Looking At?

Article excerpt

it's offhandedly called the "own little world" disease, and with good reason. Those who suffer from autism seldom look anyone in the eye, have trouble carrying on a conversation, and show little reaction to the emotions of those around them. But two recent studies--one featuring pictures of monkeys' backsides, the other snapshots of human faces--offer hope by lending insight into the brain processes that aid normal social relations. Understanding these processes may help researchers develop therapies that put autistic patients at ease when interacting with others.

To learn how the brain attaches significance to social information, neurobiologist Michael Platt at Duke University's Primate Research Center had a group of male macaque monkeys observe "primate porn"--images of the faces and hindquarters of female monkeys. The males consistently "paid" to see these pictures by giving up juice rewards, sacrificing the most juice to see images of the highest-ranking monkeys (simian equivalents of Julia Roberts or Catherine Zeta-Jones). The results of the juice tests, published in the journal Current Biology, revealed the monkeys' intense interest in others and their sophisticated understanding of social rank. "Our intuition is that there's a neural mechanism that gives intrinsic significance to keeping tabs on where other individuals are and what they might be doing," Platt said.

Platt thinks further examination of how animals and humans make complex social judgments could shed light on the dilemma of autistic individuals, who show an apparent inability to make such judgments. "Autistic patients aren't motivated to look at people, they don't follow emotional expressions well, and they have trouble with one-on-one learning," he said. "If we can figure out how the brain deals with information about other individuals, we might understand what goes wrong in autism and think about using this model in a therapeutic way. …

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