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October 26, 2009

Talking with Dr. Temple Grandin, Author of "Animals in Translation"

By Joan Brunwasser

People may wonder why it's so important to be humane when,in the end,the animals are still dead and we eat them.Well,it causes pain if you're not nice to them.You wouldn't say to this person “It only takes a second to yank out a tooth so we're not going to use any anesthetics.”It's really important to prevent suffering and animals are definitely capable of feeling pain and fear. There's absolutely no question about it.


Dr. Temple Grandin is probably the most well-known person with autism today. She is an author as well as a successful livestock handling equipment designer. Welcome to, Temple. Thank you for joining us. Thinking in Pictures tells about your life with autism. It's a fascinating glimpse into another world, another language, another way of seeing and processing the world.

Your success, and your willingness to talk and write about it have offered us an opportunity we've never had before. Speaking for myself, I have not had much if any contact in the past with anyone with autism. That may hold true for many of our readers at as well. Can you tell us a little about how people with autism process information differently than people without it?

Well, people with autism tend to be very, very detail-oriented. And autism is a very big continuum. It goes all the way from people that are going to remain non-verbal and have a lot of handicaps to brilliant geniuses like Einstein and Mozart and Van Gogh and many musicians and scientists. So, in other words, a little bit of the autism trait can give some advantages and too much of the autism trait gives a severe handicap.

Can you talk about that a little bit?

I'm a visual thinker. I think totally in pictures. Anything I think about is sort of like Google for images. The thing is, autistic brains are specialized. I think in pictures. There's another type of specialized brain that tends to think in mathematics and in patterns, sort of more abstract images. And then there's a third type that's more of a word specialist. And it tends to be a specialist brain: good at one thing, and bad at something else. In fact, there's 2 1/2 times as many engineers in the family history of people with autism. If you didn't have autism genes, you probably wouldn't have any phones, computers, or electricity.

That's a radical thought. Did your visual way of thinking make it easier to write your books?

Well, it makes it very easy to design equipment because I can test-run equipment in my head, like a 3-D, virtual reality computer. I thought everyone thought like that way. But when i wrote my book Thinking in Pictures, I was shocked to learn that most people think in a more generalized way. Like for example if I say “Think about a factory,” they get kind of a generalized image of a factory. While I only see specific ones, there is no generalized image of a factory, there's just a whole lot of specific factories.

So when did you first discover that the way you thought was different than other people around you?

Well, I didn't fully discover it until I wrote Thinking in Pictures in the mid ‘90s and I started interviewing people in detail. Now, if I ask you, “Think about your own house or your own car,” most people are so familiar with that, that they can see that. But when I start asking you about stuff you see everyday but you're less familiar with - church steeples, post offices, factories, ferry boats, you know, things that are less familiar - then, you tend to see a generalized image. There's now been research that explains why this happens. I'm actually thinking with primary, visual cortex and when you think of the more generalized image, you're thinking in the association cortex. Now there are certain kinds of jobs that I can do extremely well with this kind of thinking.

And to give your readers out there a sense of what visual thinking is like, I want you to pretend that I'm Google for Images and give me a key word and I'll tell you how my mind brings it up in a kind of associational manner. But don't ask me something that I can see in my office right now.

How about a tree?

Okay, well, I'm seeing the tree that's right outside my apartment. I'm seeing a tree with a tree-house we built when I was a kid. I'm getting a lot of pictures from my childhood of different trees that we played in, trees we had in front of our house. I'm seeing a tree that the horses chewed off half the bark and wrecked it and that makes me very unhappy. Now, I've gotten into the Horses file. Now, you're seeing how I could get from trees to horses, so I'm now seeing the horse that chewed the tree. Now, I'm seeing a horse that I rode when I was in high school. Okay, see how the logic goes? It's associational. I went from the Tree file into the Horse file. Now I could get into the High School file when I start thinking about riding in high school.

When did you realize that your thought processes had more in common with animals?

Well, animals don't have language. So, as I gained more and more insight into how my thinking was different, I'm going “well, this must be how an animal thinks. An animal is going to be a sensory-based thinker. And I talk about this in my book Animals in Translation. The animal is going to store its memories as pictures, as smell whiffs, as sounds, as touch sensations. And they're all going to be very, very specific.

And one of the indications that animal memories are specific, is that they get very specific fear memories. Like for example, maybe white saddle pads are bad. And they're only bad when they're naked and there's no saddle on top. You see, when there's a saddle on top of a white saddle pad, that is a different picture than a naked white saddle pad. and why would he always be afraid of a naked white saddle pad? Because maybe someone was always sacking him out with one and really scaring him with it.

It seemed very very obvious that was the only way they could think. Now there's also some evidence in human beings that language covers up the more visual thinking the more sort of sensory based thinking that we might share with animals. There's a type of Alzheimer's called frontal temporal lobe dementia that, in a few rare cases, when it destroysthe frontal cortex and the language parts of the brain, art work or skill in photography will appear in a person who's had no previous interest in art.

That's so interesting. So, where does that new talent come from? Oh, you're saying it was there all along but the language covered it up.

That's right. The language covered it up. It was lying there dormant and what happened was in some of these patients - this is Bruce Miller's work published in the Journal of Neurology - they had a four or five year window where this talent was expressed and then the Alzheimer's just wrecked everything. What happens is that the Alzheimer's takes out the frontal cortex first, and then goes down into the language part and wrecks that, and then the last part of the brain it wrecks is the visual cortex.

Let's go back to the animals for a minute, if you don't mind. You've translated your ability to understand animals into their more humane treatment in livestock pens and the meat packing industry.

One of the things that I started looking at very early in my career was all the little things that animals are afraid of. You know I'd get down in the chutes and I could see that the cattle would balk at a shadow, or a shiny reflection, or a chain hanging down and all these things that people tend to not notice. And if you removed these things from the facility, then the animals are going to walk right up the chute.

Were you surprised that people didn't see what you saw so easily?

I thought everyone would be capable of seeing it. People just sort of don't think that's important. I've worked with a number of different people on making training videos on cattle handling and I've worked on three different training videos in different countries even and people have a tendency to leave out the importance of removing these little distractions that scare the animals; like chains hanging down, the reflections and the shadows. Because if you're running a lot of cattle through a vaccinating chute or through a meat plant and you've got a chain hanging down or they see a reflection on a wet floor, they're just not going to want to move. So you change the lighting to get rid of that reflection, then they'll walk right up the chute.

Once you show management how this works, and they see that you're right, aren't they eager to adapt your techniques?

Oh yeah, they are. And I find that I can help people do this by giving them long checklists. I tell them to get down in the chute and see exactly what the cattle would be seeing. In fact, in Animals in Translation, there's a long check list for people, things they need to look for.

People may wonder why it's so important to be humane when, in the end, the animals are still dead and we eat them.

Well, it causes pain if you're not nice to them. I mean you wouldn't say to this person “It only takes a second to yank out a tooth so we're not going to use any anesthetics.”

Ouch. Great analogy!

Animals feel pain. You wouldn't say “We're going to take Granny and throw her over in a corner of the nursing home. Now, of course, keep her alive.” It's really important to prevent suffering and animals are definitely capable of feeling pain and fear. There's absolutely no question about that. That's very well documented in the scientific literature.

Let's pause here, Temple. When we return, we'll talk about how you got interested in humane treatment of livestock in the first place and what you've found in the field. Please join us.

continue reading Part Two, Talking with Dr. Temple Grandin, Author of "Animals in Translation"

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Joan has been the Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December 2005. She writes on a large range of subjects and does many interviews and reviews.