Sunday, March 04, 2012

The limits of perception: on Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation

[A version of my latest Sunday Guardian books column]

Like nearly everyone else who saw The Artist, I loved Uggie the performing dog who plays Jack, the lead character’s most reliable companion. I enjoyed the scenes where Jack mimics human reactions to various situations – falling over dramatically when a gun is fired, making a pleading gesture when someone has to be mollified. It’s cute and it works because within the narrative Jack is a movie star who has been trained to do these things: his “hamming” has a context (and anyway, even the human acting in this film is a deliberately stylised take on silent-movie performances). But generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the anthropomorphising of animals in live-action films – the scenes calculated to make viewers go “Aww” as they feel the warm glow that comes with knowing that a creature from another species can be Just Like Us (because that’s the standard all living things should aspire to, no?).

Anyone who has ever been close to an animal - or more accurately, a non-human animal - knows how nonsensical and insulting it is to claim (as some people continue to do) that they don’t have feelings. But at the other end of the spectrum is the potentially dangerous belief that animals, especially domesticated ones, respond to the world in exactly the same ways as humans do. It’s natural enough to project our own thoughts and emotional responses on them: at various times I’ve been guilty of anthropomorphising my canine child – telling myself, for example, “She’s mumbling to herself” when she opens and closes her mouth in surprise at the sight of a vagrant peacock in the neighborhood park. (Of course, it’s possible that she is doing something roughly comparable to a human talking to himself in wonder when he sees something unusual – but the point is that a casual assumption of this sort can become a barrier to understanding animal behaviour.)

Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow is a book I strongly recommend to anyone who seeks an understanding of what the inner lives of animals might really be like, and the small but crucial ways in which their intelligence and perception differs from that of human beings. Grandin, who was in Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, was well-placed to write this book – diagnosed with autism as a child, she underwent a long struggle to deal with her condition and to comprehend how it made her different from most other people. Along the way, she realised that her autism was “a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English”.
Animals are like autistic savants. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that animals might actually be autistic savants. Animals have special talents normal people don't, the same way autistic people have special talents normal people don't; and at least some animals have special forms of genius normal people don't.
As an adult, Grandin has worked in the fields of animal behaviour and welfare, playing a big role in revolutionizing techniques used in the US livestock industry. Her empathy has allowed her to immediately notice things that “normal” humans don’t: how cattle can be made nervous by abrupt changes in light (while moving from a well-lit enclosure into a dark alley) or by a yellow cloth flapping on a fence. It also gives her special insight into various manifestations of animal intelligence: from bird migration to dogs who can predict seizures in humans to a squirrel’s memory for different types of nuts and burial spots.

“It’s ironic that we always say autistic children are in their own little worlds,” she writes, “Autistic people are experiencing the actual world much more directly and accurately than normal people, with all their inattentional blindness.” This is because while autistic people (and animals) tend to be visual thinkers who process details, most “normal” people’s brains convert details into words and abstractions. A persistent theme in this book is that the perceptual systems most of us are so proud of give us a limited, highly selective view of the world, leaving us exposed in many ways – hence the startling results of visual experiments such as “Gorilla in the Midst”, where 50 percent of the “normal” people watching a short video failed to see a man in a gorilla suit even though he was right in front of them. Or the alarming flight simulation test where a significant percentage of pilots didn’t even notice a large aircraft parked on the runway they were landing on – mainly because their brains didn’t expect to see such an anomaly.

All of which makes Animals in Translation a humbling read on more than one count. It makes for excellent complementary reading to the work of Peter Singer and other ethical philosophers who have written about the perils of “speciesism”. (More about that in this post.) But even for readers who aren’t specifically interested in animals, Grandin’s book is valuable for its many observations about things we take for granted - such as the ways in which we use language and other modes of communication - and things we aren’t properly attuned to, such as the workings of our imperfect little homosapien brains.

[A few excerpts from Animals in Translation are here]


  1. Are you planning to comment on the Oscars too? Some critics are saying that like 2008, this time also the awards weren't fair. What's you view?

  2. Anon: no, definitely not commenting on the Oscars. Don't really follow them anyway, but I think it's pointless to have discussions about the "fairness" of competitive awards (unless one is explicitly saying they have been fixed or bought, which I'm fairly sure isn't the case with the Oscars).

  3. No, its not that they are fixed (glad its not Cricket), but what I meant was that do you think the Oscar awards are correct in awarding a film like Slumdog? or many other films which are not Oscar worthy?

  4. Anon: I've already provided my answer in the earlier comment - that I don't find it useful beyond a point to discuss/analyse the choices made by competitive awards. For example, I know many people who would disagree with you about Slumdog M - I didn't care for the film myself, but I also don't find it interesting to discuss whether or not it "deserved" the best picture Oscar. Award juries have all sorts of different reasons for making the choices they do - and anyway, the Oscar voting process is such that the winners don't have to be the results of a Hive Mind.

    I wrote a very general post about the Oscars years ago - here's the link. Rereading it, I find it's a little simplistic (and I was clearly wrong about "sitting with my notepad in hand, waiting for the nominees announcement, even 40 years from now" - I've barely followed the awards the last 3-4 years!). But it does summarise some of my feelings.

    Now, can we please move on and stick to on-topic comments? This post is about a Temple Grandin book.

  5. Also:

    Some critics are saying that like 2008, this time also the awards weren't fair

    Some critics (including some very good, intelligent, sensitive critics) say this about the Oscars, and any other award, every single year - it's a natural offshoot of any award process. What's so special about 2008 and this year?

  6. Actually, I think the AMPAS is simply the "artistic" arm of the movie industry which basically showcases and hawks its finest product (See, for example the Manohala Dargis vs. AO Scott nytimes piece or the AV club article on the oscars -,69962/).

    It's really fundamentally about commerce, and in that sense it's as rigged as any awards show which is trying to advertise product. Which in and of itself has little to do with artistic merit. To paraphrase Eddie Vedder's mawkish line at the VMAs all those years ago - "how can you judge art?". :P

    on another note, jabberwock, have you read Donna Haraway's "When Species Meet"? I had asked you this on a previous post of yours on animals in cinema (Teri meherbaniyan!), but I don't know if you had replied to it.

  7. Sapera: no, haven't read it - will look out for it.

  8. The book sounds fascinating!I need to get hold of it asap.

  9. Agree with Dipali. Added to my wishlist!

  10. there is also a similar element when human beings look for planets 'like earth' believing the conditions that produced life on earth are the only conditions suitable for life. the gross looking aliens in films, who are but human structures gone weird (according to me) are also instances pointing to the fact that man looks for likeness, not so much for difference. It is like the normal vision of an individual who misses the gorilla when asked to evaluate the number of counts of passes by the people in white. selective perception - that is what man is tuned to. while astronomical knowledge has shifted from the geocentric worldview to the heliocentric worldview, the inherent knowledge in which the human brain is steeped in is that of the homo-centric view of the world.

  11. forgot to say - a great read, as almost always :)

  12. Have you seen the film made by HBO 'Temple Grandin' starring Claire Danes...I got to know about her through the film. Will get hold of the book too