Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

But when I went into his office, it was a big letdown. He was just a normal-looking man. I remember he had this plant wired up around his office, growing all around the room. We were sitting there talking, and he started asking really personal questions. I don't remember what they were, because I almost never remember specific words and sentences from conversations. That's because autistic people think in pictures; we have almost no words running through our heads at all. Just a stream of images. So I don't remember the verbal details of the questions; I just remember that he asked them.

Then he tried to touch my legs. I was shocked. I wasn't in a sexy dress, I was in a conservative dress, and that was the last thing I expected. So I said, "You may look at them, but you may not touch them." I do remember saying that.

We did get to talk about animals and behavior, though, and finally I said to him, "Dr. Skinner, if we could just learn how the brain works." That's the other part of the conversation I remember specifically.

He said, "We don't need to learn about the brain, we have operant conditioning."

I remember driving back to school going over this in my mind, and finally saying to myself, "I don't think I believe that."

I didn't believe it because I had problems that sure didn't seem to be coming from my environment. Also, I'd taken an animal ethology class at college -- ethologists study animals in their natural environments -- and Thomas Evans, the teacher, had taught us about animal instincts, which were hardwired behavior patterns the animal was born with. Instincts had nothing to do with the environment, they came with the animal.

Dr. Skinner changed his mind when he got old. My friend John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard who wrote the books Shadow Syndromes (with my co-author on this book, Catherine Johnson) and A User's Guide to the Brain, told me a story about a lunch he had with Dr. Skinner near the end of his life. While they were talking John asked him, "Don't you think it's time we got inside the black box?"

Dr. Skinner said, "Ever since my stroke I've thought so."

The brain is pretty powerful, and a person whose brain isn't working right knows just how powerful. Dr. Skinner had to learn the hard way. His stroke showed him not everything is controlled by the environment. But back in the 1970s, when I was getting started, behaviorism was the law.

I don't want to sound like the enemy of behaviorism, though, because I'm not. In one way behaviorists weren't that different from ethologists, because neither group looked inside the animal's head. Behaviorists looked at animals in laboratory environments; ethologists looked at animals in their natural environment. But both were looking at animals from the outside.

Behaviorists made a big mistake declaring the brain off-limits, but their focus on the environment was a huge step forward and is to this day. Until behaviorism came along, probably no one understood how important the environment is. People still don't. In the meatpacking industry, where I've worked for thirty years designing humane handling systems, a lot of plant owners don't think twice about their cattle's environment. If there's a problem with the herd, it doesn't even occur to them to look at the animals' surroundings to see what's going on. People want the equipment that I install, but they don't realize that the equipment won't work if the environment is bad.

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