Books: Animals in Translation

I had been intending to read a book by Temple Grandin at some point, but hadn’t gotten around to it. When I found Animals in Translation in the library catalog, I immediately put a hold on it. The book not only tells some of Grandin’s own story as a person with autism who has a successful career and communicates effectively, it explains a great deal about animal behavior, and touches on issues of language and brain research. Once I had finished reading The Big Burn, I read through Grandin’s book in a single day.

Besides touching on multiple subjects that are important to me, it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I had wondered what the writing would be like in a book written by a person with autism. Grandin had a co-author, Catherine Johnson, so I don’t know just how much of the “feel” of the book is Grandin’s and how much is Johnson’s, but I got the impression that I was hearing Grandin’s “voice.” (The acknowledgements section at the end of the book includes a section by each writer; Grandin’s section reads like the rest of the book, while Johnson’s reads quite differently.)

The writing is simple and straightforward, without the abundance of complex and subordinate clauses that many writers (including me) tend to use. Unfamiliar words (of which there are many, at least for a reader not previously familiar with the study of the brain and animal behavior) are explained clearly. I don’t think I ever had to go back and reread a paragraph because I hadn’t understood it the first time. But there was no sense of reading a book that had been deliberately simplified.

The focus of the book is understanding animal behavior. Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science, and has spent her career working with livestock (designing equipment for humane handling of livestock and providing consulting on various livestock handling problems). She had noticed, both in her academic research and her work with livestock, certain similarities between how she perceives things and how it appeared that animals perceived things.

Grandin thinks primarily in pictures rather than words (the pictures come first, the words later to explain or summarize). Because she is so visually oriented, she notices many visual details that non-autistic people miss. The animals she works with a likewise visually oriented, so she can easily identify the little details that bother them in their environment that are virtually invisible to other people at the facility.

(I have long thought of myself as a visual learner, but I do not think visually the way Grandin does. I think in words, not pictures. The visual aspect that is important to me is that I can understand other people’s words much better if I can read them rather than hear them. I listen to someone and get a general idea what is being said but can’t easily pick up on details. I read the same words and I quickly understand, plus I remember much of the detail without even trying to.)

Grandin realizes that people with autism have a good deal in common with animals. This doesn’t mean that their mental functioning is at the same level with animals – Grandin posits that their brains function somewhere in between how the brains of typical humans and those of animals. The primary difference is the typical humans think conceptually, while animals – and to a large degree people with autism – think perceptually.

Animals and people all get a huge amount of input from their five senses. Most people are only aware of a small amount of this input, however, because the brain processes it first before it reaches the conscious mind. The brain filters out much of the detail and only presents what is considered important to the conscious mind, with the raw data organized into a conceptual framework. As Grandin puts it, we don’t see an actual building in front of us so much as a concept of the building.

The autistic person, on the other hand, sees every detail of the building – and can easily be distracted by certain details (especially those that move) so much that the rest of it is ignored. Animals, likewise, see all those details, and many of the details of a manmade environment can be fear-inducing to animals. (Grandin gives a long list of those details that frighten livestock, from dangling chains to blowing pieces of plastic to reflections on metal to anything yellow.)

In contrast to typical people, who easily make generalization and are prone to over-generalize, animals and people with autism tend to be hyper-specific. One of the examples Grandin gives is that livestock who have only seen people on horseback are likely to be frightened of people on foot, as these seem to be an entirely different kind of beings. On the other hand, if they have only seen people on foot, people on horseback will be frightening. When discussing household animals, Grandin points out that a puppy needs to learn not only to be gentle with young children in the family, but other young children as well, as it won’t be able to learn that general principle on its own.

That same hyper-specificity can have its advantages, however. She mentions a horse that had been abused by a particular kind of bit. Given a different bit, however, it had no problems, because it did not have a category of “bit” in its mind, only the specific one that it hated. People with autism can outperform other people in certain kinds of jobs that require noticing tiny defects, because these differences from the standard are glaringly obvious to people attuned to every detail, but very difficult for a “normal” person to spot.

A large section of the book deals with understand the emotions and motivations connected with animal behavior. This part seemed less obviously related to autistic experience, but greatly interested me because of the direct application to our dog’s behavior. Grandin explains which kinds of behavior are “hard-wired,” patterns that are inborn and do not need to be learned – nor can they be unlearned. These include mating behaviors and – in the case of predators – the act of killing, and giving chase to anything that moves fast.

Lately Kyra has been more often suddenly trying to turn and chase someone on a bicycle. I don’t know if there are more cyclists around lately, or if the suddenness of her attempts to chase are due to her having not reacted to them until they were only a few feet away. (In other words, perhaps previously she would have been straining at the leash as soon as they were within sight, and I would have had more time to react myself and get her further from the road.) Knowing that it is a behavior that is hard-wired into her, I can be less annoyed at her, even if it is still difficult sometimes to keep her from suddenly jerking me off my feet.

Grandin also makes it clear that while hard-wired behaviors will not change, the animal has to learn – whether in the wild or domesticated – in what circumstances those behaviors are appropriate. Normally the animal will learn from others of its own kind such things as what is prey and what is not, and what is a potential mate and what is not. Ideally even a domesticated animal will learn these things from other animals that live in the same environment, but if this does not happen then people need to find a way to teach the animal those things (especially in the case of cats and dogs, teaching them that people and other pets are never prey).

Other topics covered in the book that I found particularly interesting were people without language (deaf-mutes who have never been taught sign language), and debunking various myths about animals. I had read previously that the common belief that only humans kill other than for food or self-defense has been found to be untrue, and Grandin gives further examples of animals that kill for no apparent reason other than the pleasure of it. She also gives examples of animals’ ability to learn more than people believed possible (her story about a gray parrot is fascinating), and evidence that some of them communicate using a system that appears to have the essential elements of language.

I definitely want to read others of Grandin’s books – but next on my list is one relating the experience of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder).

One Response to Books: Animals in Translation

  1. modestypress says:

    I have read about Temple Grandin, but I have not read her book as of yet. Maybe I will.

    Raising our chickens and trying to understand how they perceive the world and make chicken decisions has been an interesting experience. For example, noting how “pecking order” plays a big role in their behavior is quite illuminating.

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