Blog Post

This Is Your Brain on the Internet: Episode 3

I'm not sure if I'll blog here every week as a way to chart what ishappening from TYBI (This Is Your Brain on the Internet), but today isFriday and, once again, my head is spinning from discussions we've hadin class, from comments students have posted on our class blog, frommedia they have given me to watch (Rugrats, Degrassi, Gossip Girl thisweek). As I noted in a parallel post as part of the terrific HASTACScholars Forum on "The Future of Digital Humanities," with NEH'sDirector of the Office of Digital Humanities, Brett Bobley, oneunexpected outcome of the class spending time before our f2f meetingswriting blogs and posting multimedia for us to watch is that somethingintense and urgent happens when we're actually together. (You can jointhat discussion at: What I'm thinking about today is translation, a topic inspired by this week's reading of Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation. Each book we read is intended as a provocation, a centerpiece for further exploration. Here are some of my thoughts.



This week in TYBI we looked at what Grandin calls "animal genius"--flying, sonar, reading human feelings, bird vision, squirrel memory--and also certain forms of "savant" genius--extraordinary math calculating abilities, calendar abilities, and so forth from people who sometimes are written off as "disabled." (We had lots of discussion about normativity.) Steffi and Tom led the discussion and asked us to think about what extraordinary "genius" we would like to have if we could and why. Nothing like desire to force one to analyze ability and its lack. Will and Ananth began talking about the ability of certain people labeled "autistic" to read emotions that so called "normal" people (enough with the air quotes!!--it is very hard, as we discovered, to talk without normative and punitive words; we have a paucity of vocabulary for the range of human abilities, a great marker of how much we limit--here come the air quotes again--the "normal"). Will noted that truly great poker players not only know where all of the 52 cards are but can also read affect even in other professional poker players who know how to disguise it. Then Ananth noted that even online poker players learn to read affect. That felt like a collaborative research project to me, and I hope they pursue it.


Esi told us about an Oprah episode and then posted a video of an Australian woman named Priscilla Dunstan who has whatever is the auditory equivalent of photographic memory. She never forgets sounds and her hearing is acute so she hears things that the rest of us ignore. As a child, she felt confused because everyone thought she was making up the sounds that, to her, seemed prominent. Like the various other people who are accused of lying or of having a disability, she started hiding her skill since it was marked as abormal. But there were so many rewards from her skill (like being able to replicate note for note a violin concerto she only heard once), that people started paying attention and even rewarding her ability. She had credibility for her unusual skill because she was able to demonstrate it in a culturally-valued way. And then, when she had a baby, she realized that she was hearing sounds the baby was making that other people seemed to ignore. While others concentrated on the crying of the baby and often felt helpless in the face of that inarticulate expression of distress, she heard the involuntary grunts before the crying, what she called the pre-cry. She could hear and differentiate sounds and she has made something of a business in teaching people how to recognize five of these grunting sounds that she calls (I have problems with this) "baby language." She insists these are cross-cultural and biological--a sucking sound (neh), a yawn (owh), discomfort/pain (heh), intestinal distress (eairr), a burp (eh). She insists if people learn to hear these pre-cry grunts and decipher them, then they can intercede before the baby starts yowling hysterically. She says she is systematizing what many people have probably responded to without systematizing in the past.


I don't know if I buy it all but I'm fascinated and Esi was making the connection between these baby grunts and the unseen gestures of professional pokers who have trained themselves not to make unseen gestures. How is it possible that another poker player (even on line) can read that as a code whereas, for most of us, it is simply a "poker face" and not a transmission of meaning. What, exactly, is and makes sounds into communication? How do twitches and grunts become language?


Temple Grandin insists that, as an autistic person, she thinks in images and her research suggests that cows also perceive in images. She argues that she can redesign feedlots and farms to not be places of torture for animals, but places where animals, even on their way to slaughter, can be calm and not treated cruelly by seeing as an animal sees. It seems to work. Virtually all feedlots in America have been redesigned with her principles. She can walk into a situation where the cows have been terrified, stampeding, trampling, and immediately see what is the cause. What is simply an irrelevant thing to the humans (humans who work around animals for a living, like the poker players or like mothers) is, she sees immediately, actually a source of fear. She makes meaning from the meaning-less. Which, of course, means that others were simply not seeing the meaning that was there.


For many years, I spent summers on a cattle ranch in Alberta, Canada, high in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Now, for a citygal from Chicago, this world was as exotic as any on earth. Relatives there had titles like Calf Roping Champion of North America or All-Around Champion on the Indian Rodeo Circuit. Family were Blackfeet and Blood and Metis---or Mormons, mostly Scandinavian immigrants who landed in this gorgeous, empty land (200 people in 200 square miles). A lot of movies are filmed there (large parts of Brokeback Mountain, if you want to get a sense of the land). I have lots of stories from Alberta because it was so unfamiliar to me. Everything was new and amazing to me. And, of course, I was the constant butt of city-girl jokes.


But it turned out that the Calf Roping Champion figured out I had an ability that I had no idea I had. Wally was a brilliant horse rider and rancher. You cannot watch me on a horse without laughing. No one would call me graceful. But he figured out that I was able to learn to read cattle and horses. I did not know this. I had no experience with cattle and horses. He could read me reading what I didn't know I was reading. And everyone in that part of the world knew Wally was a genius at this kind of animal reading. If you lost a steer, you called Wally and he would find the steer, living or dead, as he would say. He could think like a steer. Like other ranchers in that area, he let his cattle roam in the national park all summer, getting fat there off the government land, a deal the Canadian government made with local ranchers and, not incidentally, a great way to keep the brush down in the high country at no expense to the government and at profit to ranchers who work incredibly hard for very little profit. This is not agri-business but family owned ranches, a few hundred head. But then, come fall, you have to ride into that high brush in mountainous terrain, with grizzly bear and mountain lions and black bears too (they're pretty harmless) and now wolves, all of which spook your horses and the steer. You round up the steer, one by one, and bring them back down to the lowland again.


Wally liked to ride with about six teenagers, crazy rodeo kids who would do anything to get out a steer. He found the steer, they would go scatter them, and then Wally would read what was happening and "get" the steer---he'd ride up, in front, beside, behind, fast or slow, yelling or whispering, depending on the mood of the steer. Whoever knew steers had moods? It was amazing to watch what he could do, and how he could quietly walk the 50 or 60 steer we'd all rounded up into a neat assembly back down to the lower corrall. It was quite amazing to watch man/horse/cows/mountains/unseen cougars and grizzlies. Some kind of ballet.


And I was asked to ride point. I have a photo of me riding point in my office and it is one of my great sources of pride. Me, the girl from Northcenter in Chicago, diehard Cubs (l-o-s-e-r-s!!!) Fan until I renounced them a decade or so ago. He saw that, despite my poor horseman skills, I was so curious and astonished by everything I was seeing, that I was actually a far better watcher than many of the locals. It was all new, all a little scary, so I paid attention. (In TYBI we talk a lot about defamiliarization. Alberta mountains, on a fall day, with cattle and grizzly and some huge rodeo quarter horse beneath me: that is defamiliarization). I was watchful for signs. Terror does that for one. And so Wally rode out ahead, the crazy rodeo boys who would swoop down and scare a cowering steer out of a gully even if it meant riding through brambles and leaping over a ravine rode between us, and I rode point. I brought up the rear. I let Wally know if I saw anything amiss, and because just about everything felt amiss (but I had to act brave because being teased as the city-slicker isn't all that fun), I was pretty good, it seemed, at spotting possible catastrophes. (I told you I grew up a Cubs fan. Sigh.)


In the other post, my contribution to a great pedagogical discussion being led by NEH's Brett Bobley, on "The Future of Digital Humanities," I mentioned how all the blogging and multimedia posting before the actual f2f TYBI class means that classtime has this meaningful and capacious dimension, where students draw analogies from life, from other disciplines, from other forms of learning, and from popular culture. We range widely. I like that a lot. (Here's the url for that other post: come join the Forum! Sometimes it feels a bit like taking the steers down from the national park, finding the ideas in the brush, and then bringing those ideas into coherence---even when there are cougars and grizzlies lurking on the edges.


Wally, by the way, didn't come back from a ride in the mountains one day. He was out looking for a missing steer. He had terminal cancer, was in his mid- or maybe even late-70s, and was losing a lot of his mobility and was in a good bit of pain, but he was still the person you called if you needed someone to find a steer. When he didn't come back, people went looking. He'd been thrown from his horse and died of a broken neck. Instantly, the doctors said, painlessly, and exactly the way and in the place he would have chosen to die had it been his choice.


And This Is Your Brain on the Internet.




Special thanks to Flickr community member PublicEnemy for this fabulous cow portrait. Please click on the image for full documentation.


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