Q&A with Temple Grandin

Thinking in pictures provides insight into the world of animals
By Claudia Kawczynska, November 2009

Temple Grandin and friends

Temple Grandin’s professional resume is impressive: BS, MS and PhD degrees; dozens of awards and professional papers; author, editor and subject of books and videos; and currently associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is also autistic, which she credits for her ability to understand how animals see, think and feel. We talk with her about her riveting book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (co-written with Catherine Johnson, PhD). 

Claudia Kawczynska: You liken animals to autistic savants. How are animals similar to autistic people?

Temple Grandin: First of all, autistic people don’t think in language, we think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures. So if you say the word “teapot,” I start to see teapots, like a teapot slide show of teapots. Animals don’t think in language; they are visual thinkers too. When you think in pictures, it has to be specific in order to form concepts.

Like when I was a little kid—in order to figure out that a dog was different from a cat, I used to sort animals out by size: horses are big, dogs came up to my waist and cats were smaller. But then our next-door neighbors bought a Dachshund—now, there was a dog the same size as a cat! What I figured out was that all dogs—no matter how big or small—had the same nose. I picked out a visual feature that every single dog has that none of the cats had.

People with autism also have tremendous memory and tend to think in details. You probably have seen the Rain Man kind of memory, where people with autism can memorize big parts of a phone book [and] can memorize maps and do number calculations. So let’s look at some of the things that animals do that would be savant-like—let’s take bird migration. Look at Canada geese or other migrating birds. They just have to be shown the route once by the other birds, and they remember the rest. There is no person that could do that.


CK: You point out another difference: Animals don’t have defense mechanisms, such as denial.

TG: It is the same with autistic people—one of the things that blows my mind about normal humans is [their capacity for] denial. When I see that something isn’t going to work, I say so, but when I do, I am accused of being negative! I also think that animals don’t have an unconscious and thus don’t have defense mechanisms. You never see a dog act as if a dangerous situation is safe.


CK: What does it mean to be detail-oriented rather than a generalist?

TG: Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detailed-oriented. They see everything and they react to everything. The big difference between animals and people is that animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things, they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world—normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.

Animals will have place-specific fears. I knew a dog that was hit by a car, and you would think that he would be afraid of cars after that. No, he was afraid of that one spot in the road where he got hit. Because that is what he was looking at the time he was hit. [It was as though] he saw a picture of that spot and would think, “Unh-unh, I’m not going there.”


CK: Do animals have consciousness?

TG: Of course animals have consciousness. The reason that researchers might not think they do is that they can’t imagine thinking without language. But I remember when I was in college, I read that the caveman could not have invented tools without language. I kept saying that is a bunch of BS, because when I design things, I do not use language. I test run equipment in my mind; I can see it in my mind.


CK: You take a rather firm stance on single-trait breeding, citing “rapist roosters” and “needle-nose Collies” as examples of the unintended consequences of this kind of breeding.

TG: I started out in farm animals, and I saw this a lot in farm animals. I saw horrible problems. Like in the pigs who were bred for rapid growth and leanness—they got pigs that were so nervous they were about to jump out of their skin, pigs who had heart attacks and fell over. I don’t think that they thought that breeding for any single trait would result in such hypercrazy pigs.

With domestic animals, we are the main engine of evolution. We’re constantly changing the body of an animal, but we are also changing them emotionally, too. Physical and emotional traits are linked in unexpected ways. If you overselect for a single trait, you are going to wreck your animal. I don’t care what the trait is.

Purebred dogs are bred mainly for appearance, to meet a standard that is heavily tilted toward physical criteria, not emotional or behavioral. One of the reasons that I think mutts are more emotionally stable is that no one is practicing single-trait selective breeding with them. I think that any time you selectively breed for one trait, eventually you wind up with neurological problems; in dogs, it’s likely to be aggression.


CK: Could you talk a little about both the part of the brain that Dr. Jaak Panksepp calls the SEEKING circuit and oxytocin, the so-called love hormone?

TG: Researchers used to think that the reason drugs like cocaine feel good and are addictive is that they raise dopamine levels, the main neurotransmitter associated with the SEEKING circuit. But researchers see things differently now—instead of dopamine being a pleasure chemical, they now think that what is being stimulated is the SEEKING system in the brain—not any pleasure center.

What feel good and what are stimulated are curiosity/interest/anticipation circuits. Just like when a dog is about to be fed—that dinnertime wag-and-smile, one of the happiest moments of a dog’s day. This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby, but stops firing when the animal actually sees the food—this helps the animal search for food, but eating the food is something else! It’s the search—the seeking—itself that feels good.

Oxytocin in females and vasopressin in males are hormones related to estrogen and testosterone. [The levels of] both shoot up in brains during sex, and oxytocin levels rise right before a female gives birth. They aren’t just “sex” hormones, they are “love” hormones, too. Oxytocin is important to all social activities, and is essential to social memory—it’s the hormone that lets animals remember each other; it is also the maternal hormone. I think that dogs have fairly high oxytocin levels—they are highly social animals. A dog’s oxytocin level rises when his owner pets him and, in turn, petting a dog raises a human’s oxytocin levels, too. I don’t think anyone has researched it yet, but I think that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents.


CK: The battle is still raging over the issue of animals and cognition. What is your position on that?

TG: I like the way Marion Stamp Dawkins [a researcher at Oxford] defines thinking in animals. She says that true cognition happens when an animal solves a problem under novel conditions. While no one has ever seen a dog make a tool, dogs can definitely problem-solve in novel situations. There are so many cases of this in guide dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.

And then there are Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s breakthrough studies with Alex [the African Grey parrot], which should make researchers think twice. She added the defining touch to social modeling theory. Basically, it was how she taught Alex. Two people sat in front of the parrot, and one of them would have a cheese puff and would say to the other, “You want the puff?” and the other would say, “I want the puff.” The first person would then give it to him. They did this right in front of the parrot. Back and forth. So then one day, the parrot said “puff” and was given the puff. He finds out that language relates to the object. Then he sees the action.

The moral of Dr. Pepperberg’s story, and the reason she finally succeeded where others had failed, was that she was the first person to consider that maybe it was the researchers’ fault that birds weren’t learning anything, not the birds’. She went beyond classical behaviorism and operant conditioning; she tried a different branch of behaviorism called social modeling theory. It is the way real people and real animals learn in the real world.

Just think of wolves. How could they learn to hunt if they didn’t observe it? The ultimate goal is to get food, but how to find the food? You have to first learn that it is food. They don’t know that the prey is food. Hunting is a predatory instinct, but you have to learn what you eat, and you learn that from Mother. You learn from observation.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.