Temple Grandin in Translation

February 25, 2008 at 6:00 am 1 comment

In her best-selling book “Animals in Translation” Dr. Temple Grandin argues that animals and autistic humans share some important cognitive abilities.  Dr. Grandin, who is autistic herself, uses her unique insight into autism to explain animal behavior. Some of her theories include:

  • categorizing autism as an intermediate condition between animal and human consciousness;
  • attributing hyper-specificity as a basic characteristic of animals (i.e. they are not capable of seeing the forest, only of seeing many trees); and
  • arguing that the worst thing you can do to any animal is cause it fear; and comparing animals to autistic savants. 

According to Orli Van Mourik over at www.neurontic.com

‘For those who’ve read up on Autism, Grandin’s ability to “relate” to animals may come as a surprise. Autism is marked by an inability to empathize. Autistics find it next to impossible to grasp the inner workings of someone else’s mind. They lack what psychologists call “a theory of mind.” For a normally functioning person, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Our ability to infer another’s emotions is so instinctive.’ 

Van Mourik goes on to explain that empathy arises from projection, from assuming that other peoples’ (or other animals’) internal experiences and reactions to stimuli will be similar ours.  The ability to project is a skill that most autistics lack.

Despite this, Grandin writes that early in life she sensed that, like her, animals tended to focus on details in the environment and that, also like her, they seemed to understand the world based on sensory experiences instead of narrative. 

Her intuition on how animals, especially prey animals, perceive and understand their world has led her not only to a best-selling book, but also to a successful career in studying livestock behavior, designing stock handling facilities and consulting on the humane handling and slaughter of meat animals.  Her brilliant insights on livestock were highlighted in the 2006 BBC documentary “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.” 

As intriguing (and as popular) as the idea that animals think like autistic savants is, new research by Giorgio Vallortigara et al of the University of Trento, Italy casts doubt on the hypothesis.  Vallortigara is quoted as saying “Autism is a pathological condition.  The extraordinary feats of remembering thousands of caches or sounds shown by some animal species are exhibited by healthy animals.”  The exceptional skills of savants, on the other hand, arise despite (or because of) the loss of other cognitive skills.

The Italian researchers assert that, “the left hemisphere sets up rules based on experience and the right hemisphere avoids rules in order to detect details and unique features that allow it to decide what is familiar and what is novel. This is true for human and nonhuman animals, likely reflecting ancient evolutionary origins of the underlying brain mechanisms.” Vallortigara stated that while Grandin’s book “shows extraordinary insight into both autism and animal welfare,” the question of equivalent cognitive abilities between savants and animals “deserves scrutiny from scientists working in animal cognition and comparative neuroscience.” 

For some time I have questioned Grandin’s assertion that fear is the primary emotion experienced by animals. In her book “Animals in Translation” Grandin wrote that if animals, like autistic humans, are prone to sensory overload, and their emotions would also likely be largely governed by fear.  She goes on to relate the propensity for sensory overload (and therefore also to be strongly affected by fear) to improper function of the frontal lobes.  The article published by Vallortigara et al may cast doubt on this theory, as they based much of their findings on the fact that animals have healthy frontal lobes.

Temple Grandin’s brilliant insights on livestock handling have not only made her surprisingly successful, more importantly, they have also lessened the suffering of the animals that go into our meals every day.  While a few of her theories may not, ultimately, stand up to academic scrutiny, she undeniably has a unique voice and a perspective in understanding animals (and autistic humans) and her contributions to the fields of humane livestock handling and animal cognition should not be belittled.In a future post I hope to go into detail on why I think that her book “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships” may provide deeper insights on how to understand and live with animals that the bestselling “Animals in Translation.”

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sian Min  |  April 20, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    I haven’t reached that part of her book yet, but I will agree with you that a lot of what she writes are hypotheses. In fact, most of the time she admits they are just guesses, intuition.

    Tthere are so many things that are just not measurable, but that should not be discounted: I think we lose so much appreciation for nature and animals by wanting to fit them and their behaviors into neat, human-derived categories.

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