Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

At that feedlot, all they needed to do was get more light inside the barn. They could have fixed the problem themselves in five minutes if they'd been able to think about the chute from the animal's point of view. The answer was right in front of them. I really do mean directly in front of them, because the people who built the barn in the first place had installed a big sliding garage door on the front of the barn that the owner had left closed.

When I told him all they needed to do was open the door, it turned out that it hadn't been opened once since the lot was built. They didn't even know if they could open it after all this time. But they got a couple of guys to put their shoulders up against the door, and after a few minutes of straining and grunting they got the thing open. That was the end of the problem. The cows all walked into the chute just as nice as could be.

What People See and Don't See

That feedlot consultation was the kind of thing that started to give me a reputation for having practically a magical connection to animals. Meanwhile I was always mystified by these situations, because to me the answers seemed so obvious. Why couldn't other people see what the matter was?

It took me fifteen years to figure out that other people actually couldn't see what the problem was, at least not without a lot of training and practice. They couldn't see it because they weren't visually oriented the way animals and autistic people are.

I always find it kind of funny that normal people are always saying autistic children "live in their own little world." When you work with animals for a while you start to realize you can say the same thing about normal people. There's a great big, beautiful world out there that a lot of normal folks are just barely taking in. It's like dogs hearing a whole register of sound we can't. Autistic people and animals are seeing a whole register of the visual world normal people can't, or don't.

I don't just mean this metaphorically, either. Normal people literally don't see a lot of things. There's a famous experiment by a psychologist named Daniel Simons, head of the Visual Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois, called Gorillas in Our Midst, that shows you how bad people's visual awareness is. In the experiment they show people a videotape of a basketball game and ask them to count how many passes one team makes. Then, a little while into the tape, while everyone is sitting there counting passes, a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, stops, turns, faces the camera, and beats her fists on her chest.

Fifty percent of all people who watch this video don't see the gorilla!

Even when experimenters ask them directly, "Did you notice the gorilla?" they say, "The what?" It's not that they don't remember the lady in the gorilla suit. Anyone who's forgotten something he saw will remember it when you give him a prompt. These folks actually didn't see the lady gorilla in the first place. She didn't register.

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