Wednesday, April 19, 2006

MIT is Full Of Them

Temple Grandin today at Porter Square Books! Fantastic reading!! Biggest crowd I've seen yet. Of course I got there an hour early so I could snag a seat, but easily two thirds of the people there were standing.  Can't believe there's an independent bookstore this great within walking distance.

From her Wiki page:

Temple Grandin, PhD, (born August 29, 1947) is an associate professor at Colorado State University and arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with 'high functioning' autism in the world. Grandin is also a world renowned professional designer of humane livestock facilities.

She’s doing readings of course to promote her book Animals in Translation , which just came out in paperback.  We picked up a copy at Porter Square Books a couple of months ago and were amazed to discover that the author herself was actually going to be speaking there.   She wrote the book because her autism gives her insights into how animals think:  i.e., non-verbally.  In her talk she mentioned many similarities between autistic people such as herself and animals:

  • An Attention to detail that “normal” people just “tune out” (this was vividly demonstrated during her talk when she lost her train of thought due to the espresso machine in the cafĂ© at the far end of the bookstore;  the rest of us of course were tuning it out but she had to stop and ask us “what is that sound?”)  Her research with animals shows that they notice all sorts of details that to us seem important:  this is something that books on dog behavior also talk about (for instance, a dog may sit when you make a certain gesture that you’re not even aware of, and may not have learned the meaning of the word)
  • Savant behavior:  just as some autistic people are like Rain Man, some animals have extremely specialized talents:  an example she gave was birds that are able to memorize the thousands of miles of a migratory route in a single voyage.
  • Fear as the prime emotion

And of course, the lack of language in animals:  Dr. Grandin herself says she thinks in pictures, and without pictures she cannot grasp abstract concepts.  She says, and it is easy to believe this, that language covers up and hides a lot of details that animals are very aware of.

Her work has mostly been focused on making slaughterhouses and livestock facilities more humane.  She has worked with McDonalds and Wendys and Burger King and the USDA and put together a simple, objective rating system to grade slaughterhouses that the USDA now uses in its audits.

Some of the most important things she talked about were the difference between abstract and concrete approaches to the world:  for instance, she said she has often noticed that she sees the most extreme political views, on both the right, and the left, in “people who work in offices” and just “don’t know what it’s like out there in the real world, on the ground.”  Which is something I definitely agree with:  it would be a huge improvement if we had more leaders and politicians who dealt with the concrete realities instead of ideologies and abstractions.  A lot of damage has been done through idealism.

McDonalds was apparently one of the pioneers in demanding humane treatment of the animals in its “product”.  One of Temple’s most affecting topics was when she talked about how she brought executives from McDonalds who had never been in a slaughterhouse to actually see what happens there.  She took them to the better ones, and they were saying things like “well, this isn’t so bad;  it’s not as bad as I was afraid it would be”, but then when she took them to the more poorly-managed ones, she saw the eyes of one executive bug out when he saw an emaciated dairy cow, barely able to walk, being led to become hamburger:  and McDonalds has been on board ever since.

Another thing I was very gratified to hear was her when she discussed current animal breeding practices.  She didn’t mention the AKC by name — and indeed was also talking about horse-breeding and pig-breeding (apparently in the rush to breed more “lean” pigs for lower-fat pork, the breeders also inadvertently selected for much more aggressive pigs that fight one another a lot more nastily).  But she did also talk about dogs and how they are being bred for trivial matters of appearance and not for whether they are healthy or have good behavioral traits.  She mentioned a huge rise in knee-surgeries in dogs, for instance.  (The wrong that dog breeders (even the “good” ones, not the infamous and monstrous “puppy mills”) and the AKC are doing is covered very admirably by Stephen Budiansky in his book The Truth About Dogs , which I highly recommend:  one of the best things you learn from him is that one of the founders of the whole Kennel Club movement was also a eugenics nut whose notions about “purity of bloodlines” was part of the pseudo-scientific claptrap that the Nazi’s drew upon for implementing their racial programs, and that the kind of ideas about genetics and inheritance that the AKC breeders live by was discredited for human beings but still lives on in animal breeding.

Anyway.  Some other great highlights:

  • When talking about non-verbal traits that autistic people share with animals, she discussed dogs and how their minds are mostly focused on “smell images” instead of picture images.  She talked about a neighbor’s beagle who always wanted to stop at a transformer box in the neighborhood, but his owner would never let him stop and sniff his “pee-mail”.
  • She talked about the white matter in the brain and how this constitutes the broadband connections between parts of the brain.  In autistic people, these connections become limited, so she has connections to the Graphics Design Department, while Rain Man has connections to the Accounting Department.
  • She said that what to normal people is the “Freudian subconscious” is right there on the surface with autistic people:  “talk about rude pop-up ads”.  (Keep in mind that she always thinks in images.)
  • And, of course, the biggest laugh came when she talked about the spectrum from autism to aspergers (which is considered a milder form of autism), when she said “MIT’s FULL of THEM!”


Track with co.mments
At Thu Apr 20, 12:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous songlian said...

"MIT's FULL of THEM!" Amen!

My friends and I have often have joked about how "special" some MIT folk are in that regard. Not me of course ;).

Seriously, these are very interesting observations. I've seen Temple Grandin on a few PBS related programs where she spoke about the consciousness of animals and how understanding that consciousness could/should influence our relationship with them. Fascinating stuff indeed.

At Mon Jun 01, 11:58:00 PM EDT, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

You forgot to mention that Temple Grandin got her PhD from my dad's department at the U.of. I. in 1989...


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