Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

Even if the experiments had been fun for the animals, I still didn't see the point. My question was, "What are you learning from this?" Dr. Skinner wrote a lot about schedules of reinforcement, which is how often and how consistently the animal receives a reward for a particular behavior, and they were running every different schedule of reinforcement they could think of. Variable reinforcement, intermittent reinforcement, delayed reinforcement; you name it, they were running it.

It was totally artificial. What animals do in labs is nothing like what they do in the wild -- so what are you actually learning when you do these experiments? You're learning how animals behave in labs. Finally people started doing things like letting a bunch of lab rats out in a courtyard and watching what they did. Suddenly the rats started developing complex behaviors no one had ever seen before.

Seeing the Way Animals See:

The Visual Environment

The only research I was interested in doing at Arizona State was studying visual illusions in animals. I'm sure I was interested in visual illusions because I'm a visual thinker. I didn't know it at the time, but being a visual thinker was the start of my career with animals. It gave me an important perspective other students and professors didn't have, because animals are visual creatures, too. Animals are controlled by what they see.

When I say I'm a visual thinker I don't mean just that I'm good at making architectural drawings and designs, or that I can design my cattle-restraining systems in my head. I actually think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures.

That's true no matter what subject I'm thinking about. For instance, if you say the word "macroeconomics" to me I get a picture of those macramé flowerpot holders people used to hang from their ceilings. That's why I can't understand economics or algebra; I can't picture it accurately in my mind. I flunked algebra. But other times thinking in pictures is an advantage. During the 1990s I knew all the dot-coms would go to hell, because when I thought about them the only images I saw were rented office space and computers that would be obsolete in two years. There wasn't anything real I could picture; the companies had no hard assets. My stockbroker asked me how I knew the two stock market crashes would happen, and I told him, "When the Monopoly play money starts jerking around the real money you're in trouble."

If I'm thinking about a structure I'm working on, all of my judgments and decisions about it happen in pictures. I see images of my design going together smoothly, images of problems and sticking points, or images of the whole thing collapsing if there's a major design flaw.

That's the point where words come in, after I've finished thinking it through. Then I'll say something like, "That won't work because it will collapse." My final judgment comes out in words, but not the process that led up to the judgment. If you think about a judge and jury, all my deliberations are in pictures, and only my final verdict is in words.

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