University News

Lecture explores animal emotions

Assistant Features Editor
Friday, March 16, 2012

“If you want to understand animals, you need to get away from verbal language,” Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and renowned autism advocate, told a crowd of about 500 in Andrews Dining Hall last night.

Her lecture, “Understanding Animal Behavior and Emotions,” discussed topics such as the similarities between the neurological expression of human and animal emotions as well as Grandin’s personal struggles with autism and how they have helped her understand animal behavior.

“Animals don’t think in words,” Grandin said. But animals “definitely have emotions” that influence their behavior, she added.

“What separates us from animals is computing power,” she said.

Known for her work in designing more efficient and humane livestock handling systems and for the invention of the “squeeze machine” – a device that gives individuals with autism spectrum disorders calming physical contact – Grandin, a Boston native, has authored more than seven books about animal behavior and her experiences with autism. In 2010, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. The same year, HBO Films released a movie adaptation of her life entitled “Temple Grandin” that won seven Emmy Awards.

A self-identified “visual thinker,” Grandin presented slides that consisted of minimal text and vibrant photographs to illustrate her main points. “Sometimes, at night, I can’t sleep,” Grandin said. “So I look up things on the Internet,” where there are a number of visually stimulating educational sites, she said.

“One of the main emotions in autism is fear,” Grandin told the audience, commenting on panic attacks she has suffered throughout her life.

Similarly, the most basic emotion in animals is fear, she said, which forms very specific, visual memories. Grandin cited an example of a horse that had alcohol splashed into its eye by an individual wearing a black cowboy hat. After this, the horse had a fear of people wearing cowboy hats – specifically black ones. These overly visual memories are similar to the way Grandin thinks, she said, which helps her to more easily understand them.

“If you force an animal to do something, you’re going to get a much higher stress response” than if the animal cooperates on its own, Grandin said.

In order to cater to members of the audience who asked to hear more about autism, Grandin commented on the importance of pushing children with autism beyond the subjects they “fixate on.”

Grandin also said that she “can’t emphasize enough” the necessity of teachers who help children engage in hands-on learning to help these “nerdy, quirky kids” who have autism to “go out and do great stuff in the world.”

“A lot of severely autistic kids in the ’50s didn’t get educated – they got sent to institutions,” she told The Herald before the event. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age and did not begin speaking until the age of 4, added that she “was very lucky” to be taken into Boston’s Children’s Hospital and to receive specialized education from an early age.

Huiying Yang ’14 attended Grandin’s lecture with more than 10 classmates from CLPS 0110: “Mechanisms of Animal Behavior.” Yang said she was unfamiliar with Grandin’s work prior to the lecture but found her discussion of animal emotions complemented what she had learned in the course.

“I think she’s awesome,” Yang added.

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