February 9, 2019

Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation

Why are we able to consciously perceive only so little? Every moment, our senses collect a large amount of information including sounds, smells, visual input and pressure, temperature and proprioception readings from all over our bodies. However, we're only consciously aware of a tiny and heavily filtered part of that information. Why is that? Why can't our consciousness deal with a larger fraction of the input data? Why can't we pay attention to many things at the same time? Why is our consciousness pointy instead of wide?

There are plenty of books trying to define consciousness, but there is much less literature on why human consciousness is the way it is. Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation addresses this question indirectly by considering different kinds of minds, like those of people with autism and those of animals. As it turns out, people with autism and animals both have access to more unfiltered sensory input, which in both cases can be overwhelming under circumstances that are fine for non-autistic people.

Unlike much of popular science writing, Grandin's books are firmly based on her own experience of working with animals and being autistic. As a result, they avoid being overly theoretical. Her writing style reflects this: She cares about her subjects without being sentimental. I haven't come across any science writer who combines extensive personal experience with published research as well as she does.

Animals in Translation came out in 2006 and some of the research may benefit from an update, but the vast majority of insights this book delivers are timeless.

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