Still Thinking In Pictures: A Conversation With Temple Grandin

09/20/2016 01:59 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2016
Temple Grandin
Rosalie Winard
Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is picturing animals.

Grandin has spent her career advocating for the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter, and her reforms for slaughterhouses sourcing meat for major fast food chains have contributed to significant improvements in animal welfare.

As a public figure on the autism spectrum, Grandin is also an advocate for neurodiversity. Check out her TED talk on the subject, with almost four million views, where she explains how autism allows her to think in pictures and how this helps her understand animal behavior.

Lake Forest College will welcome Grandin on October 6 to kick off Homecoming Weekend with her lecture, “Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach.” The incoming first-year class read a chapter from her book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (2009, with Catherine Johnson) as this year’s common read, and Grandin was kind enough to talk with me on the phone in advance of her visit.

Davis: You were recently in Brazil addressing veterinary students. What was the topic?

Temple: Animal behavior. I was explaining to them how animals live in a sensory based world. They think in pictures. They think in sounds. It’s sensory based. It’s not word based.

Davis: In Animals Make Us Human, you write about thinking in pictures. Perhaps there was a time that humans thought in pictures—before writing. Do you think we’ve changed as a species?

Temple: Yes. But if you read my book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005, with Catherine Johnson), I write about the man without words. He was completely deaf, and he didn’t know what language was until he was taught sign language. That changed the way that he thinks.

Davis: You’ve indicated that you think in pictures, and that you think this is connected to the fact that you are on the Autism spectrum. Do you believe others might think in pictures?

Temple: Most people are somewhere in the middle…if if I said to you, “Think about a church steeple,” how does it come into your mind? Most people get kind of a vague, generalized image. I only see specific ones. There is no generalized image.

Davis: Is it always a church you have seen in person?

Temple: It could be in a movie it could be in a photograph, but it has to be one I have seen.

Davis: I do part of my academic research on William S. Burroughs, and he writes extensively about the difficulty of thinking images—because of interference from words, which he equates with control systems. If we can’t think in pictures, does this make it harder to understand animals?

Temple: I talk about that in my first book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (1996), that there’s also a kind of mathematical way of thinking, where you think in patterns and symbols. [You find this] with computer scientists, with engineers…they think in patterns, rather than thinking in pictures.

Davis: Do you think people are born with certain characteristics that allow them to think more in patterns or more in pictures, or can this be learned?

Temple: I think it is possible to develop it to a certain extent for people who are in the middle on these things. If I say to somebody who tends to see a very generalized image of a church steeple, “think about a specific one in your neighborhood,” you can force them to dig down in their graphics file, but the default position is just a pointy kind of a line drawing.

Davis: How does the ability to think in pictures help you work with animals?

Temple: It’s because I have very specific memories. In Animals in Translation I talk about the black-hat horse. This is a horse that was abused during a veterinary procedure by someone wearing a black cowboy hat, so this horse was terrified by black cowboy hats. White hats no effect, black hats bad. If I put the hat down on the ground it was less scary. But when I took the hat and moved it closer to my head, it became even scarier.

Davis: Could the animal be conditioned to be less frightened of the color, or had it become so deeply traumatic that you realized that black simply had to be avoided?

Temple:You’ve got animals that have really high-strung genetics. They get more scared—more terrified—than an animal that’s got a calmer genetic disposition.

Davis: So a lot of this is some basic color science right? Identifying colors, and perhaps textures.

Temple: There’s a study that was done in Germany with horses that found if a horse was trained to tolerate a blue-and-white umbrella opening up suddenly, okay, the horse can be taught to tolerate that. Yet, if you then take an orange tarp and flap it all around, the horse will become terrified. But think about it, umbrellas and tarps look totally different.

Davis: Do you find, after you’ve done this work for so many years, that people are open to making changes. Or, do your clients think you are crazy when you say, “you’ve got to change the color of the hat”?

Temple: What I find is that most people have a very hard time thinking that specifically. If an animal gets afraid of a specific sound or a specific object like an umbrella, [they may become afraid of] something that is similar to an umbrella, maybe a photographer’s reflector…they’ll get afraid of that.

Davis: Are you suggesting that people have a hard time getting down to that granular level where every object has to be curated to make the animal feel comfortable?

Temple: Let me tell you about a dog. This dog got terrified of hot air balloons, and then he started getting terrified of random objects around town. We were trying to figure out what these objects were, so I started making a list of the places where she got terrified, and one of the places was out on the interstate. She was in the front seat of a car, and a gasoline tanker was in front of her, going up a hill, and she got afraid of that. She was scared of street lights; she would get scared of the pizza parlor.

Finally, I figured out that the thing that she was afraid of in a visually specific way was “round objects against the sky.” A streetlight is a round object against the sky, a gasoline tanker going over the top of a hill is a round truck rear end against the sky.

Davis: So this is an imprinted moment of terror that then became…

Temple: Yeah a moment of terror with a hot air balloon that probably went up, you know, near where she was.

Davis: Does this suggest that if an animal can be made to feel scared about something that isn’t necessarily genetically imprinted, the opposite might happen?

Temple: She was frightened by the hot air balloon…but she was not afraid of traffic lights, because in Fort Collins, Colorado, traffic lights have a black rectangle behind them.

Davis: Okay, so what did the caretaker do to calm the animal once you identified this?

Temple: Once we figured out what it was, we found some of the stuff we could do was to first keep her away [from round objects against the sky]. It’s hard sometimes to get animals over these fear memories. Sometimes you can be feeding them their favorite food when the fear thing is there. That helps. Or sometimes gradually desensitizing it, but the first thing is you need to figure out what’s setting her off.

Davis:You mention the dog’s fear, and in Animals Make Us Human you characterize some of your early life as being filled with fear. Would you talk about how that impacted you, or the way that you’ve come to understand these memories?

Temple: Well, when I got into puberty I started having a lot of anxiety and I explain it in detail in my book Thinking in Pictures. I’ve since learned from brain scans that my fear center was three times larger than normal. Constant anxiety…it’s a kind of anxiety where you’re always looking for danger. Now imagine if someone put a bunch of poisonous snakes in your office and shut the door, you’d always be looking for danger. That’s the way my nervous system was all the time, and the way I got that under control was a low dose of anti-depressant medication. And you have to use a low dose, because a high dose is going to cause agitation and insomnia.

Davis: That’s amazing. From what I’ve read of your growing up as a someone on the autism spectrum, it sounds like you had parents who were committed to getting you the help you needed. What do you think is different today about the way people deal with an autism diagnosis, from when you were a child?

Temple: Well one thing that’s a lot better is that kids are being helped through early educational intervention….You have to address it, if you have little kids that are not talking, the research is very good, you’ve got to get twenty hours a week of one-to-one teaching.

Davis: Twenty hours, that’s significant.

Temple: Twenty hours a week of one-to-one teaching with an effective teacher to get language started.

Davis: And I imagine you need the right teacher who’s doing the right interventions.

Temple: Well the right teacher knows just how hard to push…I got into an excellent early intervention program at two and a half. The first doctor I went to was a neurologist who recommended speech therapy, and I got a lot better.

Davis: You didn’t speak until you were three and a half?

Temple: Almost four.

Davis: Do you have any memories of that? Or was it so far in the past that you didn’t even have words to conceptualize it?

Temple: I remember the frustration of not being able to speak. You can imagine wanting to speak but just not being able to do it at all. Just not being able to get the words out.

Davis: What has changed in the animal industry that’s good since you’ve started, and hasn’t changed that needs to change?

Temple: With meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, they’ve improved greatly. I’ve worked on better equipment, but the thing that really made the change was that I worked on an auditing program where we measure five specific outcome variables, including how many cattle are shot dead on the first shot, how many cattle are vocalizing in the stunning area, how many animals fall down, how many animals are given the electric prod…and we started using this scoring system for McDonald’s corporation audits.

When you have a big customer like that insisting on standards, that was already a huge change, And the good news is that to fix most of these plants did not require doing a lot of expensive things. Of the 75 original suppliers of pork and beef, only three had to do something expensive. Everybody else had to make only minor repairs--changes in flooring, changes in lighting--and training, training, training…and lots of supervision.

Davis: Is there backsliding after you leave the factory if employees don’t have the right management? Do they fall back on old behaviors?

Temple: Supervising, you have to keep supervising, and auditing. The other thing is video cameras. Stick video cameras in the plants, then go to a third part—an independent party—that tunes in every day at random times to score the plant.

Davis: Is third-party auditing a now widespread practice?

Temple: Video cameras are becoming widespread; all the big companies have them now.

Davis: What are some of the things that haven’t changed in the industry?

Temple: The real problem now is something we have to fix out on the farm. The slaughterhouses were easier to fix because there was an animal-handling system, and putting in some flooring or changing the bulbs was easier than maybe putting egg-laying and [non egg-laying] chickens into different kinds of housing. Now I think that’s going to gradually change. Consumers are going to demand it.

Davis: Over the last thirty years we’ve had companies sometimes change their behaviors and we’ve had consumers sometimes change their behaviors. Is there just more public awareness of the conditions under which we raise and slaughter animals?

Temple: I think the internet has opened up avenues of communication, and younger people are not only very concerned about where their food comes from, but also concerned that Wendy’s and other companies get better conditions for their employees.

Davis:Yes, I think that you’re right, there’s more awareness…

Temple: They want to make a difference.

Davis: I know you’re not a vegetarian and I’m not either (anymore), but do you believe large-scale vegetarianism is sustainable?

Temple: I’ve been learning more about sustainable agriculture and about how livestock are part of the land. Two years ago, at one of our cattle meetings at Colorado State University, we had a crop scientist explain how the best soil was created by herds of grazing bison out on the Great Plains. Grazing animals created some of the best soil as part of the land. Now, we have to get started with more crop rotation and integrating cattle pastures with crop rotation.

Davis: By eliminating grazing behaviors, as we have through industrialization, are you saying we are impacting the ecosystem and the potential long-term viability of farming soil?

Temple: The animals are part of the land…so you know how we’re just heading toward the mono-cropping of soybeans, that’s not a great thing to be doing.

Davis: The title of your Lake Forest College talk is “Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach.” What are you going to address?

Temple: I’ll talk about pushing biology. You’ve got chickens who grow super-fast, and the first thing I want to clarify is they’re not genetically modified

Davis: That is not a genetically modified organism? A super-fast growing chicken?

Temple: No it is not. It was developed with ordinary, regular breeding.

Davis: Should we be suspicious of GMOs?

Temple: I think a lot of technology is a matter of how it’s used…There is a GMO process where you take a piece of code from another species, insert it into a plant or an animal…you edit the genome of an animal. For example, if you snip out a little piece of DNA in cattle that would get rid of their horns, that is something I’d really like to do in dairy cattle is to get rid of their horns.

Davis: Okay, why do you want to get rid of the horns?

Temple: Well because taking them off is very painful for the animal, and it’s a safety problem when they have them.

Davis: What about the ethical complaint, that we’re just…

Temple: If you take the horns off, it hurts…it hurts to take the horns off.

Davis: Right, but so what about somebody that says “but it’s completely unnatural to genetically manipulate the animal to grow without the part of its body that is there inside its code.”

Temple: But let’s talk about how we’ve done things with breeding. One of my things is pushing biology too hard. I’m going to use a pet as an example. Look at the deformed freakazoid that is the bulldog. It cannot walk; it cannot breathe; it cannot have its puppies naturally. That was done with breeding, and that’s an extreme example of pushing biology just too far.

Davis: Do you mean it is better to “edit” at the gene level than what is happening through breeding in some cases?

Temple: If you can push biology too hard through just conventional breeding, where the animal in not as sturdy, or may not be as disease resistant. You have racehorses just running and snapping the legs…that’s pushing the biological system too hard.

Davis: But if we also push a genetic editing too hard, we could be doing things that…

Temple: We can push things too hard with just regular breeding…I think anyone who wants to think about GMO’s should look up teosinte, which is the ancestor of corn. It’s like a wheat plant with little kernels on it. Now how do we get from this little wheat plant with corn kernels on it to this big huge ear of corn?

Davis: We’ve made hybrids over these millennia…

Temple: That was done with breeding.

Davis: Yes, but the counter argument is that when you insert time—when it takes place over hundreds or thousands of years—you’re minimizing the dangers because the things that are really dangerous are not going to be sustained over that time period. Whereas when you gene edit quickly, you haven’t given the geologic scale time to take it out of circulation.

Temple: Bulldogs. We’ve made a mess out of that. You can take a look online at the bulldog dilemma. On Google images you’ll see the [older versions] of the bulldog. That’s not eons.

Davis: So if we go into an area where we’re editing genes as you suggest, or removing horns, etc., should there be any regulations? Should the government be involved? Should there be industry controls?

Temple: As for slaughterhouses changes, a lot of that was driven by meat buyers. Economics can drive change. Customers are in the situation where they can drive change in many different ways…. For slaughterhouses, we have to maintain the gains we’ve made in the handling of cows. Another improvement area is better cattle handling. That’s the bright spot. But there are some other things we have to worry about, [some dangers] come from pushing animal biology too hard and some from through old-fashioned animal breeding.


Lake Forest College’s Oppenheimer Family Foundation lecture series with Temple Grandin take places on October 6th. Grandin joins a long list of Oppenheimer lecturers who have given talks on campus over the last several years, including theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Thomas Friedman, and many others. Thanks to Victoria Henson and Nina Vallone for help in transcribing this interview.

Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent book is the novel INK. He is currently prepping for the Chicago Humanities Festival “Drones R Us” program, and talking each week about the Grateful Dead in preparation for a spring 2017 course.

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