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Book Commentary: Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

Caroline Feldman's picture

My dog doesn't like change. She likes the same morning routine, at the same time, all the time. She likes treats to be predictable, although she won't turn one down, ever. She knows the bedtime routine of treat-sleep. There are days she won't eat breakfast unless I give her American cheese first. When I get dressed, she assumes "walk time," even when I'm wearing “dressy” clothes. I used to refer to her as, "my autistic dog." Little did I know.

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, seeks to explain animal behavior, from a special point of view - that of a very high-functioning autistic adult. Grandin's basic thesis is that her autistic brain functions similarly to that of animals, which allows her to think the way animals do. Of course, Grandin has most of the higher brain function of what she refreshingly calls, "normal people." The idea being that a translator needs to be fluent in both languages.

Grandin may be familiar to some readers as Oliver Sacks's Anthropologist on Mars. She's the high-functioning autistic whose ability to identify with cows has led her to design more humane equipment for stockyards and feedlots. As a teenager at a boarding school, she designed a "squeeze machine" to comfort herself, after noticing the calming effect that deep pressure has on animals.

Animals in Translation is heavy on the brain chemistry, and hard on behaviorist theory. This doesn't mean that training doesn't work; if anything, it's intended to direct it more humanely and efficiently. It does mean that the state of the art has advanced so far past the black-box theory of B.F. Skinner that we've been locating brain function in specific areas and chemicals for some time now.

She skillfully leads the reader through the mental life of animals, emphasizing the areas where the way our brains process information is so different from those of animals that we often don't even consider that there might be alternatives. This concept reminded me of our class discussion on the relationship between the neocortex and mammals. It would have been interesting to read about Grandin’s opinion on the role of the neocortex, since she highlights points in her book that stress the idea that the human brain operates so differently from animals. In one section of the book, she suggests that animals experience pain much less keenly than humans do, noting that often they will show no signs of discomfort even when they are clearly injured. On the other hand, she says, fear may be as debilitating for animals as severe pain is for humans. Both humans and animals experience both pain and fear, but animals experience fear as the ultimate unpleasantness, just as humans experience pain.

Other sections expose other facets of animals’ behavior that seem nonsensical at first, but seem perfectly logical when placed in the correct context. Many of her lessons involve putting herself in the place of the animals involved, on the theory that her autistic brain will let her naturally see their motivations. The amazing thing is how often it seems to work, producing not just an enthralling book but concrete advances in animal handling systems for meat packing plants and horse trainers.

If there's an overarching theory to the book, it is that the frontal lobes in autistic people don't work very efficiently, mimicking the depleted frontal lobes in animals. The frontal lobes are what allow for generalization. However, this generalization comes at a price, the filtering out of a great deal of raw information. When that filtering doesn't happen, the brain gets overloaded; it's as though every sensory input is turned up to 11. Things that you and I would overlook, like a plastic bottle on the ground or a yellow raincoat, will bring an entire line of cattle to stamping halt on their way through a plant. Grandin sees things that way, too, which is why she can design systems to reduce the need for electric cattle prods.

It's also a fascinating look at evolutionary biology. Dogs have been domesticated from wolves, of course, essentially turned into permanent wolf-puppies, and the brain structure comparison between the two are instructive. (You may never look at your dog the same way again.) What's more startling is the speculation that our close relationship with dogs - and our early dependence on their help - may have altered our own brain chemistry.

The better Grandin understands animals, the clearer it is that they are not so very different from us. After all, a deficiency in a part of her own forebrain has made her far more similar to animals in her thinking process - yet she remains indisputably human. The differences between us are far smaller than most people think. This assertion makes some people - even people who call themselves scientists - very uncomfortable, and some lash out at those who make the claim. It's very important to them to believe that there is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between humans and animals. But to keep the gulf in place, they have to ignore vast amounts of important and useful evidence - evidence that will help us understand ourselves and animals.

In fact, for me the most profound part of reading this book was the insights I gained into human nature - my own and everyone else's. Underneath all the talking, reasoning, arguing, laughing people there are dogs and lizards trying to protect themselves and reproduce their genes. Anyone who forgets this and expects people to act only for rational reasons is going to be disappointed all the time. And if we forget our strong kinship with animals, we're also going to lose some of the alliances that have made us who and what we are.

Grandin, Temple, and Catherine Johnson. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Autism: people and animals

"if we forget our strong kinship with animals, we're also going to lose some of the alliances that have made us who and what we are"

and perhaps some of what we can do as humans as well?