Translating Temple Grandin's 'Animals in Translation'

smkaplan's picture

Uncertain how to begin my commentary on Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Human Behavior, I revisited my book commentary for Paul’s Emergence class, which I took in the spring of my freshman year. Writing about Jane Jacobs’ urban planning opus The Death and Life of American Cities, I wrote that it was nearly a misnomer to call Jacobs an “urban theorist,” as her approach to urban planning was, in some sense, antitheoretical—she advocates an on-the-ground, observational approach to planning rather than one based on abstract ideas of how cities should be organized.

One might say the same thing about Temple Grandin’s approach to understanding animals. Grandin, who is autistic, begins her book with a description of her work, which primarily involves designing humane slaughterhouse systems and auditing slaughterhouses for private companies. Grandin faults government and meatpacking industry officials for their abstractification—what she describes as their tendency to focus more on their thoughts about animals than on the animals themselves. This abstractification is not necessarily purposeful—although, as she notes, it doesn’t help that most of today’s government regulators have never worked in a meatpacking plant—but rather results, at least partially, from a biological reality: “Normal human beings are abstractified in their sensory perceptions as well as their thoughts.” Animals and autistic people, on the other hand, “don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves.”

This observation, which she ties to differences in brain structure and organization between human beings and animals, and between normal human beings and those with autism, forms the core of her argument in Animals in Translation: that there is a natural understanding between animals and autistic people that is absent in normal human-animal relations—or, as she more artfully puts it, “Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans.”

Why might this be? Grandin here relies on Paul MacLean’s triune brain model, which suggests that the human brain consists of three separate parts—in essence, three different brains: the reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain, and the neomammalian brain. It is the neomammalian brain that contains the neocortex, which, Grandin argues, is responsible for our tendency towards abstractification. “The whole neocortex is one big association cortex,” she writes,” “making connections between all kinds of things that stay more separate for animals.” This allows us to generalize and compare—but also impairs our ability to directly access sensory perception data.

In humans, the neocortex is far larger than the rest of the brain—in animals, it’s the opposite. Autistic people have many problems with their frontal lobes—the frontal lobe sits inside the neocortex and is the final destination for all the information traveling through our brain—which means they rely on their paleomammalian brain more than other people do. The paleomammalian brain is dominant in animals, and thus autistic people have this element of brain function in common with animals.

As examples, Grandin cites personal experience and others’ observations to show that those with autism share a number of traits with animals that other people do not. Like animals, Grandin argues, she does not have an unconscious mind in the sense that other people do—that is, no subconscious area into which to push unpleasant images and associations so that they do not trouble the conscious mind. This is because the frontal lobe, which malfunctions in autistic people, is responsible for our verbal memory—our sense of our own past as a narrative. The frontal lobe blocks non-autistic people’s abilities to remember things visually—in terms of pictures, instead of words—meaning that without it, autistic people cannot get those unpleasant images out of their minds. Animals have similar problems—whereas most people are able to overcome traumatic experiences, for examples, most animals cannot, as those memories of trauma are so visually powerful that they cannot be “forgotten” the way we forget things by pushing them into our unconscious.

Another example is the way animals deal with pain. Numerous studies have shown that pain, in the sense that we typically experience it, is a function of the frontal lobes. Without complete frontal lobe function, the pain is still present, but it is the frontal lobe that makes non-autistic human beings care about pain so much, and without that function, pain is relegated to the background. Grandin recounts her own hysterectomy, and the fact that she was far less bothered by the pain of the operation than most patients, as evidence. In fact, Grandin argues that much of the concern with mistreatment of animals is misplaced—pain does not bother animals as much as fear, a sentiment shared by autistic people. For Grandin, fear and anxiety were the defining emotions of her childhood and teenage years. In autistic people and in animals, fear occupies the place in the mind that pain does in non-autistic people. She argues that humane treatment of animals must take fear into account, perhaps moreso even than pain.

Grandin’s book is filled with fascinating examples like these. What seems significant to me, however, is the way she uses these personal experiences and scientific observations to build her argument, allowing her to sidestep the vast body of literature that approaches animal rights from an ethical or philosophical standpoint. Some animal rights philosophers would likely accuse Grandin of anthropomorphizing animals—of claiming to have some kind of insight into their internal worlds that we cannot possibly have. Grandin acknowledges these potential objections, first with a story about a couple who brought their pet lion on an airplane with them. Worried about its comfort in the cargo area, they gave it a pillow, which it proceeded to eat, leading to the lion’s death. She then explains that in her work, when she spends time in animal feed yards, trying to imagine what the animals feel like, she is, in fact, anthropomorphizing—the difference is that she happens to be right. She tries to see things from animals’ perspectives only using her own personal experiences and observational science, rather than philosophical musings on the nature of animal identity.

Moreover, Grandin might object that these kinds of philosophical objections are direct products of our highly developed frontal lobes, which give us our capacity for the kinds of abstract thinking that can lead a theorist to say, for example, that any kind of imagining of the animal other is impossible. For Grandin, whose reality is not shaped by the same abstract thought, such objections are simply irrelevant. What she sees is much more direct, unchecked by worries about what is “ethical” or philosophically correct. After all, ethics and philosophy are both highly generalized and abstract modes of thought—they have no special insight into the world as it is.

Grandin ends the book talking about animal intelligence. Unsurprisingly, she paints human efforts to “measure” the intelligence of animals against humans as misguided and hopelessly reductive. Animals, as she establishes, often have access to entirely different areas of perception than humans. That, in itself, is a kind of intelligence we can never understand. Humans also have their own areas of perception unavailable to animals, of course, but it is only our own hubris that leads us to value these areas over others. For example, Grandin cites a classic argument that animals are stupid—essentially, if animals are as smart as us, how come they’re still living in trees, living in oceans, not inventing things, etc.? The obvious fallacy here is that animals may simply not be interested in such pursuits, not to mention the fact that some groups of humans were not even interested in inventing things, etc., until they were colonized by the Europeans who so highly valued such activities.

Similarly, of course, autistic people have access to their own intelligence—knowledge hidden from both animals and humans. But Grandin convincingly establishes that there is a significant overlap between the minds of animals and autistic people, an overlap that offers its own insights into the complex groups of sensations that come to constitute what we typically think of as discrete phenomena: perception, intelligence, emotion, and more.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Grandin: abstractification, visualization, pain, fear

Temple Grandin is indeed a source of lots of useful insights, at least in part because her brain works differently from many people (cf Thinking in Pictures).  Glad to have this to add to the list.  "Abstractification" and its cons (and pros) is an interesting issue to pursue further (cf Deconstructing and reconstructing individuals and cultures and Culture, brain, science, education).  So too is the centrality (or lack thereof) of pain and fear, various forms of "unconscious,"  and the role of the I-function in blocking "people’s abilities to remember things visually" (cf.Photographic/eidetec memory and on line discussion there). 

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