Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

If I'm alone I'll say the verdict out loud, though I don't do it with other people around because I know I'm not supposed to. In college I did a lot of talking out loud because it helped me organize my thinking. A lot of autistic people talk out loud for the same reason. I'll also do some extremely simple running commentary in words. I'll say, "Let's try this," or, "Oh boy! I figured it out." The language is always simple. It's the pictures that are complex.

When I talk to other people I translate my pictures into stock phrases or sentences I have "on tape" inside my head. Those kids who called me Tape Recorder were right about me. They were mean, but they were right. I am a tape recorder. That's how I'm able to talk. The reason I don't sound like a tape recorder anymore is that I have so many stock phrases and sentences I can move around into new combinations. All my public speaking has been a huge help. When I got criticisms saying I always gave the same speech, I started moving my slides around. That moved my phrases around, too.

When I was young I had no idea that being a visual thinker made me different from anyone else. I thought everyone saw pictures inside their heads. So naturally, when I didn't like the lab work I was doing and wanted to start learning about animals in their natural environments, I focused on the visual environment. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was just what I naturally gravitated to.

Being verbal thinkers, behaviorists hadn't really thought about the visual environment. When they talked about the environment rewarding or punishing an animal in response to something it did, they usually meant food and electric shocks. That made sense for a Skinner box, where there's nothing much to look at, and if you mess up you get a shock. (A Skinner box was a special cage, usually a Plexiglas box, behaviorists used to test and analyze a rat's behavior. There was nothing in it except a lever and maybe some indicator lights that went on or off when a reward was available.) Most Skinner boxes didn't shock the animals, but if punishment was part of the experiment, usually the punishment would be a shock.

In the wild, though, there aren't any electric shocks, and you can't get food by pecking a lever. You get food by being highly attuned to the visual environment. Behaviorists finally started to catch on to the importance of vision to an animal when somebody did a famous experiment showing you could teach a monkey how to push a lever just by letting him look outside a window every time he hit the lever. They didn't need to give the monkey a food reward, just a view. Animals need to see, and they want to see.

While I was doing my research on visual illusions in the lab I started to hang out in feed yards with the cattle, where I noticed that a lot of times the animals didn't want to go through the chutes, which are the narrow passageways the cattle go through on the way to the squeeze chute. When I saw cattle balking and acting scared I just naturally thought, "Well let's look at it from the animal's point of view. I've got to get in the chute and see what he's seeing."

So I took pictures inside the chutes from the cattle's point of view. I even put black-and-white film in my camera because we thought animals saw in black and white. (Later on we learned that they see colors, too, but not in as wide a spectrum as we do.) I wanted to see what they were seeing.

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