Neurontic

I’ve been meaning to read Temple Grandin ever sense reading about her in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars. But for some reason, her books continually ended up on the bottom of the pile on my nightstand. What a shame. Having just finished Grandin’s Animals in Translation, I regret dragging my feet for so long. Her life story is like catnip for the psychologically curious.

Arguably America’s foremost animal behavioralist, Grandin has spent her 32-year career working to ensure that the animals that end up in slices on our dining room tables are treated with care and compassion in their final moments. She singlehandedly convinced McDonald’s — perhaps the biggest purchaser of beef in the world — to mandate that its beef suppliers adopt her recommendations for humane treatment. If you, like me, are a guilty, but unreformed carnivore, this alone should make her worthy of interest. But Grandin’s achievements are rendered even more impressive when you learn that there was a time in her life when some believed she’d never even speak.

Grandin was born with a severe case of autism. Sacks paints a vivid picture of her first few years of life:

At six months, she started to stiffen in her mother’s arms, at ten months, to claw her “like a trapped animal.” . . . Temple describes her world as one of sensations heightened, sometimes to an excruciating degree: she speaks of her ears, at the age of two or three, as helpless microphones, transmitting everything, irrespective of relevance, at full, overwhelming volume–and there was an equal lack of modulation in all her senses . . . She was subject to sudden impulses and, when these were frustrated, violent rage. She perceived none of the usual rules and codes of human relationship. She lived, sometimes raged, inconceivably disorganized, in a world of unbridled chaos. In her third year, she became destructive and violent:

“Normal children use clay for modeling; I used feces and then spread my creations all over the room. I chewed puzzles and spit the cardboard mush out on the floor. I had a violent temper, and when thwarted, I’d throw anything handy–a museum quality vase or leftover feces. I screamed continually.”

(Note to reader: According to Sacks, autistics have an unparalleled ability to accurately recall events from very early life. Some have detailed memories of their first year.)

In Animals in Translation, Grandin says her unquenchable rage was the result of her frustrated attempts to communicate; the consequence of being utterly powerless to reach outside herself and relay her needs. Thankfully, she was born into a family with the patience and tolerance necessary to pull her out of her insular universe. Two things saved her from a life of mute wrath, she says: learning to read and animals.

Reading introduced her to worlds outside her own. It fed her boundless curiosity and taught her that language is a vehicle for information–a realization that compelled her to master the intricacies of communication. (We’ll discuss this more in the next entry.)

In animals, Grandin found kindred spirits. She intuitively grasped that their experience of the world resembled her own. It was a world made up of minute details; a world perceived through pictures rather than language. Grandin sensed that animals, like her, were prone to sensory overload and driven largely by fear.

For those who’ve read up on Autism, Grandin’s ability to “relate” to animals may come as a surprise. Autism is marked by an inability to empathize. Autistics find it next to impossible to grasp the inner workings of someone else’s mind. They lack what psychologists call “a theory of mind.” For a normally functioning person, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Our ability to infer another’s emotions is so instinctive.

I find it easiest to think about it like this: empathy is essentially a function of projection. We build models of other people’s internal experiences by assuming that their reactions to events mirror our own, to a greater or lesser degree. Autistics can’t do this automatically. Any sense of another’s inner world has to be assembled intellectually. The idea of a shared emotional reality is entirely foreign to them. (No one is sure why at this point, although many theorize that it has to do with a deficit of mirror neurons.)

Grandin was born without the equipment to intuit other people’s emotions. She learned early on, however, that this was not the case with animals. Because she grasped that animals sensory experiences were similar to her own — that they, like her, were absorbed by details and defined the world based on their sensory experiences (as opposed to language) — she felt an immediate kinship.

But how could that be? Why was it that she had an instinctual sympathy with animals and not with people? Grandin’s still not entirely sure, but she has a theory that’s pretty convincing.

She believes that the culprit is faulty frontal lobes. Autistics, like animals, have underdeveloped neocortexs. And it is this difference, according to Grandin, that makes autistics more like animals, in some ways, than people. I’ll let her tell the rest:

When you compare human and animal brains, the only difference that’s obvious to the naked eye is the increased size of the neocortex in people . . . The neocortex is the top layer of the brain, and includes the frontal lobes as well as all of the other structures where higher cognitive functions are located.

To understand why animals seem so different from normal human beings, yet so familiar at the same time, you need to know that the human brain is really three different brains, each one built on top of the previous at three different times in evolutionary history . . . the first and oldest brain, which is physically the lowest down inside the skull, is the reptilian brain. The next brain, in the middle, is the paleomammalian brain. The third, and newest brain, highest up inside the head, is the neomammalian brain.

Roughly speaking, the reptilian brain corresponds to that in lizards and performs basic life support functions like breathing; the paleomammalian brain corresponds to that in mammals and handles emotion; and the neomammalian brain corresponds to that in primates — especially people — and handles reason and language. All animals have some neomammalian brain, but it’s much larger and more important in primates and people.

Put simply, the neomammalian brain is “the great generalizer.” It is the hardware that enables us “normals” to take all of the disparate data we receive, organize it, and draw logical conclusions. Being able to generalize is one of humanity’s most important gifts. Categorization is the fundamental building block of normal intelligence. Without categories, we would be captive to a continuous, undifferentiated stream of sensory input. (Much like Grandin was as a child.)

Due to their smaller frontal lobes, animals spend far less time generalizing than people, according to Grandin. Their worlds are made up of a series of sense impressions – pictures – that they react to largely on a moment-by-moment basis. Grandin believes that autistics have much the same experience. And she thinks this is the result of faulty wiring in the frontal lobes.” Consequently, she says many autistics rely on their second (or paleomammalian) brain to make sense of the world:

When [a normal person’s] frontal lobes are down [due to lack of sleep or trauma, for instance], you have your animal (palemammalian) brain to fall back on . . . the animal brain is the default position for people . . . and people are like animals, especially when their frontal lobes aren’t working up to par.

I think that’s the reason for the special connection autistic people like me have to animals. Autistic people’s frontal lobes almost never work as well as normal people’s do, so our brain function ends up being somewhere in between human and animal. We use our animal brains more than normal people do, because we have to . . . Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are.

Grandin is aware that autism has robbed her of the full human experience, but she also believes her disorder has allowed her to avoid making one of the central mistakes of “normals”: over-generalizing.

The price human beings pay for having such big, fat frontal lobes is that normal people become oblivious in a way that animals and autistic people aren’t. Normal people stop seeing the details that make up the big picture and see only the big picture instead . . . A normal person doesn’t become conscious of what he’s looking at until after his brain has composed the sensory bits and pieces into wholes.

In this sense, Grandin argues, it’s unjust to claim that autistic people “live in their own little world.” She believes that autistics, like animals, are far better at accepting the unfiltered version of reality. It’s normals that continually try to project their beliefs onto reality. Being too cerebral, Grandin says (in a phrase reminiscent of both George W. Bush and Jesse Jackson) causes people to “abstractify.” We become so infatuated with our ideological picture of the world that we grow blind to what’s happening around us. The price we pay for abstractification is steep, says Grandin:

In my experience, people become more radical when they’re thinking abstractly. They bog down in permanent bickering where they’ve lost touch with what’s actually happening in the real world . . . Today the abstract thinkers are in charge, and abstract thinkers get locked into abstract debates and arguments that aren’t based in reality. I think this is one of the reasons there is so much partisan fighting inside government.

That Grandin has been able to transform herself from a feral, cardboard chewing mute into such an astute observer of human and animal nature is nothing short of miraculous. And her musings don’t end here. In the next entry we’ll explore her theories on the function of language, and why people have more in common with prairie dogs than you might think.