Saturday, January 25, 2014

Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures

I had the privilege of spending almost two days with Temple Grandin, and introduced her for her lectures.  In my introduction, I wrote the following:

"While many people only dream of becoming a leading voice in one field during their lives, Dr. Grandin has become a leading voice in two.  She has spent her career recasting the way that we understand and interact with both animals and people with autism, and she has created a remarkable body of writing that speaks to experts and to lay people.  She has helped us see the animal world through an animal’s eyes, and has shown us that we can design machines based on principles of human caring and empathy."

When I wrote that, I was two-thirds of the way through her book Thinking in Pictures, in which Dr. Grandin describes how she thinks, how autism works (to the extent we know at this time), and how those things link with animal science.  I've now finished the book, and can say that I never thought I would be so completely captivated by a book that deals extensively with, among other things, handling cattle and cattle behavior. 

This is a compelling read, in large part because Dr. Grandin writes in a clear, precise, and simple way.  She has many, many gifts, but among them is the rare ability to explain difficult, field-specific concepts to lay people in language they understand. It's an art of translation that is similar to the kind of translation she has to make every day from the pictures that form her thoughts as a visual thinker to words that make those clear to those around her. 

As I read her description of the picture "database" in her mind, I thought of the new BBC Sherlock series.  The creators of the show give Sherlock the power to transport himself mentally into something called the "mind palace."  What we see when he's in his mind palace is a series of rapidly moving images that he is scanning and sifting, until he lands on the right image that holds the information he needs.  Over dinner, I mentioned this to Dr. Grandin, and she said that's how her mind works.  Certainly makes sense--Sherlock exhibits some characteristics that would likely put him somewhere on the autism spectrum as a very high-function person.

This is a book that links two things that don't intuitively go together, and Dr. Grandin makes a persuasive argument.  It's a book that is deceptively complex--despite the clarity of her prose, the ideas are profound and complicated.  

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