Monday, May 25, 2009

Teaching Tips from Animal Psychologist Temple Grandin

(reflections on the book ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION by Temple Grandin with Catherine Johnson.)

Subtitled “Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior,” Dr. Grandin’s own story of growing up autistic is part of every chapter of this book. She “thinks in pictures,” and her experience and research lead her to believe that animals think similarly.

She also reports on results of brain imaging experiments.

The book ends with recommendations of what works and what doesn’t with pets, but, to my surprise, I picked up information more useful to teaching middle schoolers. I suppose that should not be so surprising. I can laugh at my students’ behavior (except when it’s malicious or dishonest) by remembering “they’re puppies.” And I don’t get angry at my dogs anymore, just firm.

Above all, we get this message, stated more succinctly in a review of the book that followed this one, printed in NYTimes: “Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.” (Garner, Dwight. "The Joys and Pains of Being an Animal." Review of ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN. NYT 20 Jan. 2009)

Here are tidbits from ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION that have applications in class as much as to life with Bo my Lab and Luis my Lab experiment:

Adolescent males of species with complex brains engage in violence for its own sake, without any obvious evolutionary purpose. Example: chimp battles, dolphins destroying porpoises, pp. 150-152.

Breeding for one trait leads to unexpected behavioral results. She gives examples of rapist roosters, “neoteny” (perpetual adolescence) in dogs, increased skittishness of dalmations, decreased intelligence in border collies over just the past thirty years.

The neocortex is the part of the brain that automatically seeks connections, that makes mixed emotions and generalizations possible. Dogs generally don’t experience mixed emotions, but Grandin gives exceptions – such as curiosity mixed with fear in cows (p.91). Ritalin and other stimulants increase neocortical activity and inhibit playfulness (119).

My favorite bit concerns a piece of research that has been updated since I first heard about it in the 80s.

When electrodes are implanted into the curiosity / interest / anticipation system, animals turn them on and keep them on until they’re totally exhausted from all their frenzied racing around and sniffing…. Researchers used to think that this circuit was the brain’s pleasure center…

But now researchers see things differently. We have a lot of evidence that the reason a drug like cocaine feels good is that it’s intensely stimulating to the SEEKING system in the brain, not to any pleasure. What the self-stimulating rats were stimulating was their curiosity / interest / anticipation circuits. That’s what feels good: being excited about things and intensely interested in what’s going on – being what people used to call “high on life”!

Evidence? The animals act curious, searching, sniffing. Humans report feeling interested. But, for Grandin, the “clincher” is that “the SEEKING circuit fires during the search for food,” and stops when the object is found (p.95).

I’ve said this for years to students: The only real pleasure in life is learning new things. It’s better if it’s meaningful; it’s better if it involves cooperation with others.

She answers a qualified “yes” to the question. “Do animals talk to each other the way people do?” For example, prairie dogs’ communications varied according to their perception of dangers, including new “transformational” uses of patterns to describe unfamiliar stimuli that the experimenters presented(p. 274). Apes discussed objects that were not present in the room (275). A parrot, impatient for the nut that was to be its reward for identifying letters, repeated the usual formula, “I want a nut” but then added “nnn, uuu, tuh.” Spelling (282)!

Along the same line, Grandin sees music as a communicative element in animals and humans. Typically, she relates this to her own autistic behavior: She could hum tunes with her mother at the piano long before she could speak, and another autistic child confused the words of a song with its tune: he thought the tune was the message.

About animals, Grandin stresses the need to establish dominance. “Make the dog sit quietly before he is fed. The dog should learn that he eats on his owner’s terms.” Also, precede the puppy into rooms, touch food while the puppy is eating, and playfully turn that puppy over and rub that puppy’s tummy to establish dominance (p.169). To avoid dangerous dominance issues and “pack mentality,” she advises dog owners to own two dogs, but no more (p. 169).

Finally, for those of us who sometimes shudder to think how many chickens have died for our pleasure, she writes clear-headedly about vegetarianism (179-180). She wishes we had evolved to be plant eaters, but we haven't. She herself was unable to operate without animal protein. Besides, it's not death but suffering that animal lovers should decry. On a related issue, here's another excerpt from that NY Times review:

She worries about the “totally adversarial” relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry. She has kind words for companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s (she has consulted for both), which are forcing their suppliers to treat animals more humanely. But she also praises activists. “The big companies are like steel, and activists are like heat. Activists soften the steel, and then I can bend it into pretty grillwork and make reforms.”

1 comment:

Susan said...

In many of the classes I've taught, the issue of animal intelligence/emotional life/communication is one of the philosophically interesting topics that even students who think philosophy is a total waste of time find philosophically interesting. (Which is pretty philosophically interesting.) I think in part they take this attitude because they have pets, but that it goes beyond this fact to a larger question about interest in "the other." We have an easier time-- in most cases anyway-- in putting ourselves in the place of the other when we're talking about other humans, but there are enough parallels and continuities between us and other animals for students to be intrigued and curious about the mental life of other animals. Animals are part of our intersubjective world, even if their interior lives are more opaque to us than those of other humans. (Not that the interior lives of other humans are crystal clear, but maybe this is part of what is so statisfying about really good literature-- it creates someone else's world and gives us a peek into it.) I used to assign students "What Is It Lke To Be a Bat?" by Thomas Nagel to start students thinking through the issue of consciousness and how experience has a subjective "flavor' even if we can't always pinpoint the details. Nothing much original in all of this, but it goes toward why the Temple Grandlin stuff is so intersting-- she's bettr than most of us at sensing what it's like to be a dog or cow or whatever.