Picturing how animals see the world

Autism helps give scientist insight


April 22, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Animal scientist Temple Grandin often drops to her hands and knees to crawl through chutes in meat processing plants, striving to see the world the way pigs do - and fix what's spooking them. Sometimes it's the reflection on a puddle of water. Sometimes it's a change in floor surface, or a sudden draft of air. Sometimes it's a tiny piece of flapping plastic that no human would notice.

Humans tend to "live surrounded by our ideas of things" rather than noticing what's actually there, Grandin says. Animals, on the other hand, tend to notice every detail of their environment. Without language to process the world, animals navigate their lives by "thinking in pictures."

So does Grandin. Because the 57-year-old scientist has autism, Grandin's thought process works differently from that of most humans. While a normal brain will search for the "big picture," automatically screening out irrelevant details, Grandin's brain lacks such a filter. She believes that many, perhaps most, autistic people experience the world as animals do: "As a swirling mass of tiny details. We're seeing, hearing, feeling all the things no one else can."

Because she can discover what makes agricultural animals fearful, Grandin has revolutionized the way livestock is treated in this country. Her humane and innovative systems for handling cattle, sheep and pigs, used in most of the nation's stockyards and slaughterhouses, have created standards of animal welfare and auditing guidelines adopted by the American Meat Institute and required by many fast-food corporations such as McDonald's.

An associate professor at Colorado State University, Grandin has written extensively about autism as well as animal behavior. Her new book, the best-selling Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, reveals more about how animals think and how humans can better understand them. She recently answered questions about her findings.

What's the first step in trying to understand animals?

To really understand animals you have to get away from language and into sensory-based thinking where you associate pictures or sounds into categories of good things or bad things. Animals store their memories in pictures or sounds or smells or tastes. They can't do it any other way.

It really helps to start noticing details, to see things the animals see. Horses might associate something like the sight of a black hat with their memory of being abused by someone wearing a black hat. A dog who's hit by a car might be less afraid of a car than by the piece of pavement he saw when he was hit by the car. They think in very specific terms.

You say your autism causes you to think in pictures. Can you describe the process?

Basically my mind works like Google for images. If I'm asked to think about something abstract, like "freedom," for instance, I think of it in its different picture contexts. It might be someone in jail, then out of jail. If it's a freedom like freedom of speech, I see people demonstrating.

I sometimes solve problems with bottom-up thinking. Imagine a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. If I can put together 20 percent of the puzzle, I'll see the picture. It's putting the details together to form the concept. The trick is picking out what the important details are.

How can people start thinking in a sensory way?

I remind them that they get an emotional feeling from someone's body language. I remind them how they can recognize if someone's annoyed in a meeting if he sits there real still, arms folded and doesn't talk.

Horse trainers often have a hard time explaining how to tell if a horse is getting upset. I tell them that instead of talking, they should have their students close their eyes and visualize the horse. What does the horse look like when it starts to get fearful? The tail is swishing, it's sweating, it's holding its head up high. You can break that down visually. Most people process that subconsciously and don't realize what they're looking at.

You write that the worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Do you think this is worse than pain?

Animals don't understand the consequences of a wound or injury. If a person has a severe injury, he can recognize what it could mean, while an animal doesn't seem to have that awareness. On the other hand, fear is what keeps an animal alive. While human beings have higher cognitive abilities to control fear, when an animal gets really scared, it sometimes goes into an absolute panic, kicking and biting in a way that people usually don't.

People with autism often suffer similar emotions. When I got into puberty, I had constant anxiety attacks, it was like being in a state of stage fright all the time. That's the way I used to feel before I got antidepressant drugs. They absolutely saved me.

What is the first step toward improving an animal's behavior?

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