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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

The limits of perception

One of the most popular films centered on a dog, Beethoven

ike everyone else who saw The Artist, I loved Uggie the performing dog who plays Jack, the lead character's most reliable companion. I enjoyed the scenes where Jack mimics human reactions to various situations — falling over dramatically when a gun is fired, making a pleading gesture when someone has to be mollified. It's cute and it works because within the narrative Jack is a movie star who has been trained to do these things: his "hamming" has a context (and anyway, even the human acting in this film is a deliberately stylised take on silent-movie performances). But generally speaking, I'm not a fan of the anthropomorphising of animals in live-action films — the sort of thing that's calculated to make viewers go "Aww" because they feel the warm glow that comes with knowing that a creature from another species can be just like us.

Anyone who has ever been close to an animal (or more accurately, a non-human animal) knows how nonsensical and insulting it is to claim (as some people do) that they don't have feelings. But at the other end of the spectrum is the potentially dangerous belief that animals (especially domesticated ones) respond to the world in exactly the same ways as humans do. It's a natural enough reaction to project our own thoughts and emotional responses on them: at various times I've been guilty of anthropomorphising my canine child — telling myself, for example "She's mumbling to herself" when she opens and closes her mouth in surprise at the sight of a vagrant peacock in the neighborhood park.

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Along the way, she realised that her autism was “a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English”.

emple Grandin's Animals in Translation is a book I strongly recommend to anyone who seeks an understanding of what the inner lives of animals might really be like, and the small but crucial ways in which their intelligence and perception differs from that of human beings. Grandin, who was in Time magazine's 2010 list of the world's 100 most influential people, was well-placed to write this book — diagnosed with autism as a child, she underwent a long struggle to deal with her condition and to comprehend how it made her different from most other people. Along the way, she realised that her autism was "a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts people like me in a perfect position to translate 'animal talk' into English". As an adult, she has worked in the fields of animal behaviour and welfare, playing a big role in revolutionising techniques used in the US livestock industry. Her empathy has allowed her to immediately notice things that "normal" humans don't: how cattle can be made nervous by abrupt changes in light (while moving from a well-lit enclosure into a dark alley) or by a yellow cloth flapping on a fence. It also gives her special insight into various manifestations of animal intelligence: from bird migration to dogs who can predict seizures in humans to a squirrel's memory for different types of nuts and burial spots.

"It's ironic that we always say autistic children are in their own little worlds," Grandin writes, "Autistic people are experiencing the actual world much more directly and accurately than normal people, with all their inattentional blindness." This is because while autistic people (and animals) tend to be visual thinkers who process details, most "normal" people's brains convert details into words and abstractions. A persistent theme in this book is that the perceptual ssystems most of us are so proud of give us a limited, highly selective view of the world, leaving us exposed in many ways — hence the startling results of visual experiments such as "Gorilla in the Midst", where 50 percent of the "normal" people watching a short video failed to see a man in a gorilla suit even though he was right in front of them. Or the flight simulation test where a significant percentage of pilots didn't even notice a large aircraft parked on the runway they were landing on — because their brains didn't expect to see such an anomaly.

All of which makes Animals in Translation a humbling read on more than one count. Even for readers who aren't specifically interested in animals, Grandin's book is valuable for its many observations about things we take for granted — and things we aren't even attuned to.

 
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