Thinking the Way Animals Do

Reader Contribution by Temple Grandin
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As a person
with autism, it is easy for me to understand how animals think because my
thinking processes are like an animal’s. Autism is a neurological disorder that
some people are born with. Scientists who study autism believe that the
disorder is cause d by immature development of certain brain circuits, and over
development of other brain circuits. Autism is a complex disorder that ranges
in severity from a mild form (such as mine), to a very serious handicap where
the child never learns to talk. The movie Rain Man depicts a man with a fairly
severe form of the disorder.

I have no
language-based thoughts at all. My thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in
my mind. When I recall something from my memory, I see only pictures. I used to
think that everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how
they thought. I learned that there is a whole continuum of thinking styles,
from totally visual thinkers like me, to the totally verbal thinkers. Artists,
engineers, and good animal trainers are often highly visual thinkers, and
accountants, bankers, and people who trade in the futures market tend to be
highly verbal thinkers with few pictures in their minds.

Most people
use a combination of both verbal and visual skills. Several years ago I devised
a little test to find out what style of thinking people use: Access your memory
on church steeples. Most people will see a picture in their mind of a generic
“generalized” steeple. I only see specific steeples; there is no
generalized one. Images of steeples flash through my mind like clicking quickly
through a series of slides or pictures on a computer screen. On the other hand,
highly verbal thinkers may “see” the words “church
steeple,” or will “see” just a simple stick-figure steeple.

A radio
station person I talked to once said that she had no pictures at all in her
mind. She thought in emotions and words. I have observed that highly verbal
people in abstract professions, such as in trading stocks or in sales, often
have difficulty understanding animals. Since they only think in words, it is
difficult for them to imagine that an animal can think. I have found that
really good animal trainers will see more detailed steeple pictures. It is
clear to me that visual thinking skills are essential to horse training, but
often the visual thinkers do not have the ability to verbalize and explain to
other people what it is they “see.”


A horse
trainer once said to me, “Animals don’t think, they just make
associations.” I responded to that by saying, “If making associations
is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.”
People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These
associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example,
a horse might fear bearded men when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men
might be tolerated in the riding arena. In this situation the horse may only
fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in
the barn with a bearded man.

also tend to make place-specific associations. This means that if a horse has
bad prior experiences in a barn with skylights, he may fear all barns with
skylights but will be fine in barns with solid roofs. This is why it is so important
that an animal’s first association with something new is a good first

Years ago a
scientist named N. Miller found that if a rat was shocked the first time it
entered a new passageway in a maze, it would never enter that passageway again.
The same may be true for horses. For example, if a horse falls down in a
trailer the first time he loads, he may fear all trailers. However, if he falls
down in a two-horse, side-by-side trailer the 25th time he is loaded, he may
make a more specific association. Instead of associating all trailers with a
painful or frightening experience, he is more likely to fear side-by-side
trailers, or fear a certain person associated with the “bad” trailer.
He has learned from previous experience that trailers are safe, so he is
unlikely to form a generalized trailer fear.

Fear Is the
Main Emotion

Fear is the
main emotion in autism and it is also the main emotion in prey animals such as
horses and cattle. Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with
autism. Any little thing that looks out of place, such as a piece of paper
blowing in the wind, may cause fear. Objects that make sudden movements are the
most fear-provoking. In the wild, sudden movement is feared because predators
make sudden movements.

animals and people with autism are also fearful of high-pitched noises. I still
have problems with high-pitched noise. A back-up alarm on a garbage truck will
cause my heart to race if it awakens me at night. The rumble of thunder has
little effect. Prey species animals, such as cattle and horses, have sensitive
ears, and loud noise may hurt their ears. When I was a child the sound of the
school bell ringing was like a dentist drill in my ear. A loudspeaker system at
a horse show may possibly have a similar effect on horses.

People with
autism have emotions, but they are simpler and more like the emotions of a
vigilant prey species animal. Fear is the main emotion in a prey species animal
because it motivates the animal to flee from predators. The fear circuits in an
animal’s brain have been mapped by neuroscientists. When an animal forms a fear
memory, it is located in the amygdala, which is in the lower, primitive part of
the brain. J.E. LeDoux and M. Davis have discovered that fear memories cannot be
erased from the brain. This is why it is so important to prevent the formation
of fear memories associated with riding, trailering, etc.

For a horse
who has previously been fearful of trailers to overcome his fear, the higher
brain centers in the cortex have to send a fear suppression signal to the
amygdala. This is called a cortical over-ride, which is a signal that will
block the fear memory but does not delete it. If the animal becomes anxious,
the old fear memory may pop back up because the cortex stops sending the fear
suppression signal.

behaviors are complex. Fear can cause a horse to flee or fight. For example,
many times when a horse kicks or bites, it is due to fear instead of
aggression. In a fear-provoking situation where a horse is prevented from
flight, he learns to fight. Dog trainers have learned that punishing a
fear-based behavior makes it worse. When a horse rears, kicks, or misbehaves
during training, it may make the trainer feel angry. The trainer may mistakenly
think that the horse is angry. But the horse is much more likely to be scared.
Therefore it is important for trainers to be calm. An angry trainer would be
scary to the horse. There are some situations where a horse may be truly
aggressive towards people, but rearing, kicking, running off, etc., during
handling or riding is much more likely to be fear based.

Effects of

In all
animals both genetic factors and experience determine how an individual will
behave in a fear-provoking situation. Fearfulness is a stable characteristic of
personality and temperament in animals. Animals with high-strung, nervous
temperaments are generally more fearful and form stronger fear memories than
animals with calm, placid temperaments. For example, research on pigs conducted
by Ted Friend and his students at Texas
A&M University
showed that some pigs will habituate to a forced non-painful procedure and
others will become more and more fearful.

Pigs were
put in a tank where they had to swim for a short time. This task was initially
frightening to all of the pigs and caused their adrenaline level to go up.
Adrenaline is secreted in both people and animals when they are scared.

Over a
series of swimming trials, some pigs habituated and were no longer scared, but
others remained fearful throughout the trials. In the pigs that did not
habituate adrenaline stayed elevated, which showed that the pigs were still

It is
likely that horses would respond to different training methods in a similar
manner. Horses with calm placid dispositions are more likely to habituate to
rough methods of handling and training compared to flighty, excitable animals.
The high-strung, spirited horse may be ruined by rough training methods because
he becomes so fearful that he fails to learn, or habituate.

On the
other hand, an animal with a calm, nonreactive nervous system will probably
habituate to a series of nonpainful forced training procedures, whereas a
flighty, high- strung nervous animal may never habituate. Horses who are
constantly swishing their tails when there are no flies present and have their
heads up are usually fearful horses. In the wild, horses put their heads up to
look for danger.

Effects of

As a
creature of flight, how a horse reacts to novel or unusual situations or new
places can be used to access his true temperament. French scientist Robert
Dantzer found that sudden novelty shoved into an animal’s face can be very
stressful. A horse with a high-strung, fearful nature may be calm and
well-mannered when ridden at home. However, his true temperament has been
masked because he feels relaxed and safe in a familiar environment. When he is
suddenly confronted with the’ new sights and sounds at a horse show he may blow

It is the
more high-strung and fearful horses who-have the most difficulty in novel
situations. At the show there are many unusual sights and sounds, such as
balloons and loud public address systems, that are never seen or heard at home.
An animal with a nervous temperament is calm when in a familiar environment —
he has learned it is safe — but is more likely to panic when suddenly
confronted with new things.

paradoxical thing about novelty is that it can be extremely attractive to an
animal when he can voluntarily approach it. A piece of paper lying in the
pasture may be approached by a curious horse, but that same piece of paper
lying on the riding trail may make the horse shy. People working with horses
and other animals need to think more about how the animals’ perceive the
situations we put them in.

Temple Grandin presented
a keynote at the Seven Springs, Pa. MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.

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