REVISED Asperger-like perceptions of reality / Piraha tribal language


Christian Missionary confronts “Experience-based culture” Everett’s journey to sanity demonstrates the confounding grip that magical thinking has on the modern neotenic brain.

NOTE: Some readers have mistaken Asperger language to mean that 1. there is an actual Asperger language and 2. that the Piraha speak “Asperger”. Sometimes it’s difficult to extract a short, but meaningful phrase to use as a title, so I have replace the misleading title. And NO, I’m not “endorsing” Everett.

What I’m proposing is that a language exists which reflects a perception of the environment that is familiar not only to many Asperger individuals, but repeats   criteria that are widely claimed to be diagnostic of Asperger’s disorder. 

I’m not saying the Piraha have Asperger’s disorder. I’m saying that the discovery of a language that is Asperger-like in its “picture of reality” opens the door to serious contemplation of my hypothesis that present day Asperger individuals are born with a “brain type” that was the prevailing type before agriculture, urbanization, and juvenalization that produced the modern social brain.  

Piraha is a concrete language that demands a sensory “source” for any statement, such as “Did you see it? Did you hear it?” I’m sure any Asperger will recognize the basic empirical “mind” of these people.

No supernatural domain. No generalizations; numbers  or abstractions. “We don’t want to hear about Jesus or God” unless they exist. You haven’t seen Jesus? Then we’re not interested.

Imagine a culture where you, a concrete visual thinker, would at last be welcome… and “home” at last. 


I’m going to say it: Asperger individuals put up with “social missionaries” day in and day out. Psychologists are the equivalent to Christian missionaries, as are teachers, parents and even work mates, neighbors and friends. We are surrounded by missionaries. Unlike the Piraha, we can’t “refuse to go to town”, but must create our private refuge wherever and however we can.


Daniel Everett: lost in translation

An article in The Telegraph about Everett’s life and work.
What can a failed missionary’s adventures in the Amazon teach us about the origins of language?

By William Leith, 10 Apr 2012

It’s hard to describe Daniel Everett, so here are some facts about him. He’s American. He was a Christian missionary. His goal in life was to tell people about Jesus. He spent 25 years, on and off, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, talking to a tribe of hunter-gatherers called the Pirahã. This is one of the most remote, undeveloped places on earth. The Pirahã did not want to know about Jesus. Not even a bit. Everett could not even begin to convert them.

Instead, they converted him, in a way. He began to speak their language, a language that is unusual to say the least. He wrote books about them. He made what he thinks is a key anthropological discovery.

And now, because of this, he’s in the middle of a bitter row with one of the world’s premier intellectuals, the formidable Noam Chomsky.

Everett is 60, but looks a bit younger – sort of like Russell Crowe’s older brother. He’s stocky, with red hair and a beard. As I shake his hand, I think of all the terrible, wrenching things this man has been through. Something awful happened to him when he was 11 years old. Two dreadful things happened to him in the rainforest. One ended well, the other very badly. Perhaps the worst thing of all happened in a flat in the middle of Manchester. Something had been nagging away at Everett for a long time, and he decided to share it with his wife, Keren. The moment he did, his life fell apart, and would never be the same again.

much more…


20 thoughts on “REVISED Asperger-like perceptions of reality / Piraha tribal language

  1. Certainly I used a weak argument in noting any Pirahã claims to have been accosted by an extraordinarily endowed Jesus. It would have made more sense, by far, to wonder what the Pirahã have in mind when they talk about the spirits of their own belief-system — here is what, according to Everett, one such spirit is like (quote from DON’T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES, Chapter 7) —
    ” The kind of spirit most commonly spoken of is the _kaoáibogi_ (‘fast mouth’). This spirit is responsible for a range of good and bad things that happen to the Pirahã. It can kill them or give them useful advice, depending on its whim.” Elsewhere, he describes these as bloodless humanoid immortals that speak in a rapid, chirping falsetto (hence their name) and can levitate. How would you explain these?

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    • Witchcraft is common in cultures worldwide; it’s basic to “controlling” the environment including animals, people, and unseen forces.(We have scientific explanations for things we can’t see) The Piraha’s “fast mouth” sounds like their particular manifestation (originally a bird or insect that by coincidence became connected to “evil” There’s a book about basic “powers” titled “Taboo, Magic, Spirits” by Edward Buriss. He uses ancient Roman practices to illustrate the very simple principles of “power” It becomes clear that modern people hold the same beliefs, but since the practices have changed we don’t recognize them, and scientific explanations have replaced beliefs. In fact the book accounts for much of human activity!

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  2. Even though Everett has by now long been an atheist, he still believes that the Pirahã were trying to tell him about spirits rather than about (say) subtle features of weather or animals. One reason he believes this is that the Pirahã’s most common descriptions of these spirits is as humanoid-looking entities who have supernatural powers to float in the treetops, to cause evil, to magically appear in the village and seek women to rape, and to do other things which do not sound like descriptions of natural phenomena.

    Everett also noted — not long before he gave up being a Christian — the following incident, some days after he had been showing the Pirahã a slide-presentation on the life of Jesus:

    “The morning after one evening’s ‘show’ an older Pirahã man, Kaaxaóoi, came to work with me on the language. As we were working, he startled me by suddenly saying, ‘The women are afraid of Jesus. They do not want him.’
    ” ‘Why not?’ I asked, wondering what had triggered this declaration.
    ” ‘Because last night he came to our village and tried to have sex with our women. He chased him around the village, trying to stick his large penis into them.”
    “Kaaxaóoi proceeded to show me with his two hands held far apart how long Jesus’s penis was — a good 3 feet.
    “I didn’t know what to say to this. I have no idea whether a Pirahã male had pretended to be Jesus and pretended to have a long penis, faking it in some way, or what else could be behind this report. Clearly Kaaxaóoi wasn’t making this up. He was reporting that he was concerned about. Later, when I questioned two other men from his village, he confirmed his story.”

    Does this sound like detailed sensing of the forces of nature, on the part of the women who (so said the men, quite concerned) had been subjected to gigantic-penis-rape attempts by Jesus? Does it, for that matter, sound like a particularly Aspie response to a slideshow about Jesus? A LOT of stuff gets into Christian missionary films, but I have never yet seen or heard of one which credited Jesus with THAT particular miraculous superpower …


    • You ask me questions that are irrational, confused? What do the stories about Jesus with a big penis have to do with spirits? The “Jesus cult” was not part of their environment, EVER, until introduced by Everett – I know that the crazy stories in the Bible flipped me out as a child – I was frightened by the realization that adults actually believe in magic: it still freaks me out. I blog about all the time. I thought adults were kidding when they talked about invisible beings that spy on your brain. Very strange! You will find similar reactions related by many Aspergers when they were exposed to Magical Thinking. Maybe the Piraha were shocked like I was. Their minds, as described by Everett, may have been disturbed, even to psychoses by the bizarre unreality of the slideshow, (which they believed to be literal) I have a post on the topic: “A Decisive Moment for an Asperger Child” about my reaction to a “Christian” moment – and I was used to Christianity all around me. They weren’t. If you believe all that “superstition” then how do you expect to understand other people? You see the world through delusions.

      It reminds me that native Americans, Navajo I believe, who first saw white people with blue eyes, thought that they were seeing the blue sky through holes in the white people’s heads.


  3. Because of your blog-piece on the Pirahã, I’ve been reading one of Dan Everett’s books on them: DON’T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES. What do you think of Dr. Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã people as believing in numerous spirits? He quotes conversations by Pirahã people describing these spirits. (Citations and quotations on request.) How far does all this fit with your notion of the Pirahã as Aspie empiricists?


    • A good and legitimate question which applies not only to the Piraha, but to most humans. My first suspicion is trouble in translation: what does a Christian missionary call whatever the Pirahas are trying to tell him about? I think that “primitive people” experience a fundamental truth that comes from their environment about the “living-ness” of everything around them: water, rocks, night and day, shadows, wind as well as animals and plants. It’s a composition and they are inside the composition. It is about energy, not abstractions. It is experiential, not conceptual. They have learned to both fear and trust nature; they know nothing else. Survival for them depends on paying strict attention to the environment, which can be daunting, dangerous and unforgiving. That requires some “help” from the forces of nature – sensing those forces is real for someone “inside” the environment and not conceptually separate. Modern people do experience this: take a city dweller out to the wilderness and they become suddenly aware of what their senses bring to them. Often they are scared witless by simple noises, shadows, changes in light. A Christian Missionary calls these experiences by a noun: spirits. As a modern person he has learned that “pagans” believe in “spirits”, devils, supernatural beings and miracles, BUT it is the Christian who believes that these fictional embodiments of energy are real objects and runs around the planet trying to convince pre-Christians that these are real. I would say that my personal experience of “nature” (I live in Wyoming) is much closer to that of pre-Christian people. I must counter the “crazy conceptual” modern social belief system by being out in the natural landscape, where my intuitive sense-based mind is happy. As far as Asperger’s go, I believe atheism is common. Religion is social; we’re not social.

      And NO – as I said before, Piraha are not Aspergers; Aspergers present a type of brain that was “normal” in pre-agriculture, pre-social humans.


  4. Re:
    “Piraha is a concrete language that demands a sensory ‘source’ for any statement, such as ‘Did you see it? Did you hear it?’ I’m sure any Asperger will recognize the basic empirical “mind” of these people.”

    The linguistic feature you’re describing, which is called “evidentiary markers,” is also required in many languages other than Pirahã: languages which require it include Quechua (the language of the Incas and of many modern Peruvians descendants) Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs, which also still has some modern-day users), Korean, and several of the languages of Europe (particularly languages in the Balkan Peninsula). For more, including specific languages that require this feature Google “evidentiary markers”+”linguistics.”

    To equate evidentiary markers with Asperger’s is an unreliable test for Asperger’s — unless you are contending that Koreans and Balkans (for instance) are all actually Aspies …


    • You must be an Aspie! The “test for Aspies” was intended as a humorous, ironic JAB at all the “phony” tests for Aspgergers that are misrepresented as scientific or medical tests, but which are a subjective judgement that garners insurance coverage, special treatment in schools and is funded by taxpayers, but mostly not helpful, maybe harmful, useless and ignorant. You are so literal… If I thought that “all” people in Korea or the Balkans” were Asperger, (a ridiculous idea), I would say so. You have a habit of attributing ideas to me that I have not stated!

      My contention is that the INSISTENCE that all human brains and behavior must conform to a conceptual (western psychological, philosophical, supernatural, religious, system invented by white male Christian academics) is nonsense and no accident’ It’s about control. It simply does not correspond to the universe that we inhabit. AND it’s a terribly malevolent set of “rules” constructed and maintained by human predators. There is no “normal” brain; there is neurodiversity: Who we are as individuals is a genetic – environmental interplay, in which mutations are key to variation and adaptation. If organisms didn’t inherit “non-normal” genes LIFE wouldn’t exist. We are each a “reasonable” factual, specific and detailed expression of a bipedal ape. We are not “created” by psychological “BS”, supernatural delusion, a psychotic male god, or ancient aliens. Culture indoctrinates its members, and if you don’t comply? At least we’re not burned as witches; but perhaps worse, our cultures labels us as subhuman.


  5. This way of speaking fits with the way my brain works. ASD’s (at least I) are naive in many matters. Because we are so literal we are easily tricked, conned or bullied. This also fits. I don’t see a conflict between this type of language and having advanced technology. New words are created as they are needed.


    • Isn’t it amazing? I’ve been insisting that “our” type of brain was common before agriculture / neoteny, but I expected such people would be “extinct” and a specific hunter-gatherer group would never be found. Yesterday I saw a google entry about a human language that’s not “really” language! And linguists arguing over it. Well of course! Bells went off, and there are the Piraha! My reaction, like yours? That’s how my brain works. It may be a new test for Aspergers! I’ve been insisting that all this supernatural orientation is a problem in the modern social mind; not “intelligent” or “real” but a disaster BEYOND religion in all areas of life. And there are these “primitive” people who are way smarter than modern people! “Have you ever met Jesus?” they asked. PRICELESS…

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      • Re:
        “It may be a new test for Asperger’s!” —
        No, I’m Aspie by every existing test and criterion, and the Pirahã way is nothing like the way my brain works.


        • The Aspie diagnosis is a mess: it’s not science-based; it’s not a medical diagnoses. There actually is no objective test because it was “invented” by Lorna Wing et al, in the 1990s. Since then it’s become a profit industry worth billions: It was “lumped into” ASD in the DSM 5 because no one could actually “prove” it’s a pathology. I only use “Asperger” because it’s become pervasive and an important “search” word on the internet. I don’t see that there is any one specific “Asperger” – that if science is eventually applied, the diagnosis will vanish and instead “real physical pathologies” will be identified. What I specifically “have” (and many Aspies also identify) is a VISUAL BRAIN. We think visually: images are not abstract. They are specific, detailed “in the now” and in memory have no basis in time. This is what the Piraha language indicates. Colors are not generalized; colors are specific to objects in the environment. Time? What time? Language about events INCLUDES indication of “proof” Did you see it, hear it, is it second hand? Fiction is a meaningless idea. And on and on.

          I no longer identify myself as a person damaged by an invented pathology (there is no proof) but as a person with a specific personality and brain type that neurotypicals regard as dangerous, weird, defective, mentally ill, alien, bizarre, etc due to their neotenic brain type; conformist, supernatural, violent in groups, and highly emotional but highly limited compassion, empathy, morality and lacking in curiosity.


  6. However, according to Dan Everett (whom I have heard lecture about this tribe), their language includes no numbers beyond “one” and “two” — and even these numbers are used so vaguely that they are better translated as “one-ish” and “two-ish” (or “sort of small/scarce” or “sort of big/plentiful,” depending on context). As an Aspie, I don’t find this limitation either particularly Aspie or particularly valuable — Everett himself reports that the Pirahã are constantly ripped off in trade-dealings with outsiders, and that they are vaguely aware of this but have never managed to figure out why it keeps on happening.


    • I thought he said that they have no numbers at all; but a few qualifiers of magnitude. We, as “modern westerners” can say that their language isn’t useful to us: so what? Our “supernatural” beliefs are of no use to them. It’s the TYPE of language and perception that (in my opinion) highly resembles the “visual thinking” Asperger like me. Colors don’t have names; they are specific to objects in the environment – the color of blood: the leaves on the xxx tree. Abstraction is missing and so is the entire “word concept” replacement of really that is a socially constructed reality and has lost contact with physical reality. Aspergers insist on explanations and proof: otherwise, we aren’t interested. But – we are also raised to be “western” – however uncomfortable that is, and have “normal” language development, BUT how we use language is “mocked” by psychologists for being literal, concrete, absorbed in the present, visual, unimaginative, nonfictional – which matches the “derision” apparent in the Christian audience in the video. Everett may have eventually “gotten it” – those people never will.

      Even tho he did see the value of these people, and it changed him, it took 20 years for him to accept their reality? This to me shows how hopelessly dominated by magical thinking are modern social human; and especially that highly religious people cannot comprehend science or any other rational approach. Their brains cannot go there.


        • That statement misses the point entirely. (I could easily say that they don’t have nuclear weapons.) Where did I say that we ought to live like them or any other group? We’re here and now and must live here and now. It’s this dominant Western belief (and narcissistic fixation) that we are the pinnacle of evolution and therefore EVERYTHING is ours to order in a hierarchy with us as the reference point at the top and pond scum somewhere at the bottom. That’s a ridiculous idea to begin with. I posted this material in the (probably futile hope) that neurotypicals might get a teeny tiny insight into neurodiversity: that Aspergers are not sick, damaged or defective – and WOW! Look! Here is a culture whose perceptions and use of language actual resemble our own. It is my contention that Aspergers retain a visual brain type that was “typical” in pre-Agricultural, pre-urban humans.

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