Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The age of the image: ASD and mirror neurons

In Stephen Apkon's The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, he proposes that literacy is inextricably intertwined with communication. Literacy evolves as communication evolves and is dependent upon cultural experiences as well. Consequently, literacy not only includes the ability to read, write and speak effectively, but the ability to interpret and share visual images as well. As he discusses this thesis, he incorporates research into mirror neurons. These are the neurons in the brain that enable us to imitate both physically and mentally the behavior we observe. Film makers are trying to develop connections with the audience and one such element of this connection is mirror neuron activation.

People on the autism spectrum (ASD) have deficits in mirror neurons. One study showing this link is seen here. fMRI imaging has revealed that when we watch an image of an activity, the same neurons fire as when we experience the same activity. Stimulating this response is key to empathy and learning and may reveal the key to understanding the deficits seen in people with ASD. Since there is a difference in this processing, if we are to teach visual literacy to students on the spectrum, we may need to approach things differently because their mental functioning is different. If neurotypicals can visually process for empathy and people on the spectrum struggle with this, additional or different support with video production or interpretation may be required.

When I think of my son, he does not like 3-D movies, IMAX movies or visuals that incorporate lots of movement of the camera. I wonder if this is related to his mirror neuron deficits. Neurotypical people process these images differently because they become one, as it were, with the film, whereas he processes it differently and ends up motion sick, something he does not experience with transportation.
Another key difference between ASD populations and neurotypicals is eye gaze. Neurotypical people look at the eyes of people whereas people on the spectrum tend to look at mouths or non-central movement. (See research here and here.) This also lends itself to implications in teaching visual literacy to students on the spectrum. They need to be directed to the central image and taught to look for clues in faces that reveal what the video director desires. If they are creating video, they may need extra guidance in what to focus on.

The Common Core includes interpreting and creating digital media. For example:
  • RL.CCR. 7: integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words,
  • RL 5.7: analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g. graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem), and
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2a Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
As a result it is important to us as teachers to be visually literate and to teach this skill to our students. In order to be able to effectively teach visually literacy to students on the spectrum, we may need to delve more deeply into the neuroscience behind how minds of people on the spectrum differ from neurotypicals and learn techniques for addressing those differences in the classroom. For some, it may be as simple as providing explicit directions about where to look and focus the frame.

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