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Talking with Dr. Temple Grandin, Author of "Thinking in Pictures"

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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 destroys the 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.

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 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!

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