Temple Grandin on the core emotions that all mammals share

Temple Grandin and friend

Here is an excerpt of an interview of Temple Grandin by Jill Owens for the Powell’s Books website (December 2008). To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.

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Temple Grandin has had a remarkable life, and the more you read of her work, the more you realize what an incredible amount she’s accomplished. Though autistic, she has a Ph.D. in animal science, teaches at Colorado State University, designs livestock equipment, and writes bestselling books. She may be more single-handedly responsible for humane treatment of animals, especially livestock, than any other individual in the last few decades. She’s also given the world much greater insight into the way autistic minds work.

Grandin’s work is both autobiographical (particularly her earlier books, including the bestselling Thinking in Pictures) and scientific. Her unique perspective on the connections between animal and human thinking opens windows into cognition that ordinary people overlook or misunderstand, and it is impossible to read her work without reevaluating one’s own impulses, emotions, and behavior.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly describes her new book, Animals Make Us Human, as “packed with fascinating insights, unexpected observations and a wealth of how-to tips.” In this interview, Grandin discusses Animals Make Us Human, core emotional systems in animals, the differences between cats and dogs, the new HBO project based on her life, and more.

How Animals Make Us Smarter get started?

It’s a sort of sequel to Animals in Translation.

I wanted to approach things in a different way. In Animals in Translation, we approached things through how animals think, what they fear, emotion systems, different things in the brain. In this book, we broke it down by species.

I want to make sure I give my co-author, Catherine Johnson, credit. She came up with the brilliant idea of linking things like stereotypic behavior back to the core emotions that Jaak Panksepp figured out years ago, which are controlled by subcortical brain systems. When we started looking at the literature on the stereotypes, I said, “Wow! This really makes sense.” That’s what the first chapter’s about.

Animal behaviorists tend to talk about motivation in a very abstract, vague way. So what exactly is this motivation? A light went on in everybody’s head, and we realized it would be the core emotions. Those core emotional circuits have been mapped. They’re subcortical, and they’re the same in all mammals, including people. Birds have emotions, but their brains are set up differently, so let’s just stick with mammals for now.

Can you describe those four core emotion systems for us?

Certainly. They are fear; rage or anger; panic or separation anxiety; and seeking. Seeking is the motivation to get out and do things. If you didn’t have a seeking emotion, you’d sit in the corner all day and not do anything.

The circuits in rage and fear have been totally mapped; they’re very primitive. Fear is the emotion that motivates animals to stay away from predators.

Three of those four — rage, panic, and fear — seem more obvious, but seeking is not something people necessarily put into the same category.

Seeking is not quite as simple as the other emotional systems. Dopamine is involved. One example of seeking gone crazy is gambling at the casino. You look at what’s gone on with all these banks going crazy, and it was gambling, basically.

There is new research which looks carefully at the nucleus accumbens, which used to be called the pleasure center of the brain. There are circuits in it that link back down to fear. Let’s say an animal is out there enjoying himself looking for food. If something dangerous comes along, he’d better be able to react to it. There has to be a way to turn that system off.

Years ago, when I studied psychology in the ’60s, there was an experiment in which scientists put an electrode in a rat’s pleasure center and he’d keep pressing a bar forever and ever to activate the electrode. That’s the seeking area.

When you think about it, you could think of it like a Christmas-present emotion. The anticipation of what you’re going to get — a new bike — for example, is sometimes better than actually getting it. It’s the anticipation, the wanting of something.

In the first chapter of Animals Make Us Human, you say that research is showing that we should focus on the emotions that an animal is experiencing rather than the behavior that it’s exhibiting. How does a pet owner, for example, tell the difference?

What you have to do is think back. You’ve got a behavior. Let’s say that you’re away at work and your dog’s chewing the door down. What emotion is that? That’s separation anxiety.

In the example of the gerbil in the first chapter, the gerbil was digging and digging and digging, and his owners thought, “We should give him more stuff to dig in.” But what the gerbil really wanted was cover, so he wouldn’t feel exposed. When they gave him cover, he stopped the stereotypy of digging. What you need to do is look at what the animal is doing and think, “Which of those four systems could that be in?”

Jaak Panksepp also talks about some secondary systems, such as sex and play. It’s possible that play could be involved with the seeking system, but that’s not known. But you look at the animal and say, “What’s driving this? Why is he doing it?”

Take the example that I write about of the panda at the zoo. The zookeepers gave the panda a beautiful exhibit, with all kinds of stuff to chew, and a bamboo forest. A panda has to spend a lot of time eating, because he’s eating food that’s not very nutritious. When they took his girlfriend away, he started brushing his teeth with the bamboo in a very weird sort of way. He had separation anxiety.

So they had two systems there. The panda had the stuff he needed for seeking, but when they took his girlfriend away, he didn’t have anyone to keep him company. Now, he loved his keeper. When we came around to the little door where his keeper would come in, he would come over. He liked to be fed treats, and do medical demonstrations, because that’s an excuse for a lot of stroking and getting fed pear, which was his favorite treat from his keeper. So I told them that what you need to do with this panda is an hour a day of quality time with the keeper. If he can’t have his girlfriend, then he’s going to need to have his keeper. If you don’t do this, he’s going to keep doing this stereotypic behavior, and it’s going to get worse. In that situation, they had satisfied one system, with the beautiful exhibit and the bamboo, but the other emotion was not satisfied.

The behavior he was doing was highly abnormal, and lots of people don’t recognize abnormal behavior in animals. One of the things about these abnormal behaviors is that you need to do something about them as soon as the behavior appears, because they can get entrenched in the nervous system, and then they’re really difficult to get rid of.


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