A view from Dave Trott: Thinking visually like a cow

Image Credit: Dave Trott

Temple Grandin received her BA from Franklin Pierce College, her MS from Arizona State University, her PhD from the University of Illinois, and is currently Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.

She’s had a book on the New York Times bestseller list; Time rated her one of its 100 Most Influential People; she’s had an award-winning HBO movie made about her.

But what makes her unusual is that Grandin was born severely autistic – she couldn’t speak until she was four, she would throw tantrums and chew the wallpaper. Because no-one understood autism, she was diagnosed as brain-damaged.

Because of her experience, she divides the world into two kinds of thinkers: those who think verbally and those who think visually.

Verbal thinkers use logic, progressing step by step towards a conclusion; our entire civilisation is based on verbal thinking, all laws and agreements are made of words.

Grandin said that the first time the world began to make sense to her was when she spent the summer on a farm as a youngster.

She connected with the world of animals – animals didn’t think, they just reacted. She understood animals and that became her area of expertise. As she became an authority on animal science, stockyards began asking her advice.

The farmers couldn’t work out why the cattle fought and panicked and injured each other.

So Grandin did something that made them think she was crazy. She got down on all fours into the chutes that the cattle were driven along, and she made the journey the same way the cattle would.

She noticed things the farmers never would – a piece of metal glinting in the sun, a chain rattling as it hung down, a piece of flapping cloth, a gate making a loud noise. All these things were trivial to the farmers, there was no reason to be frightened of them.

Grandin explained that cows weren’t verbal thinkers like the farmers, they were visual thinkers like her, plus they were prey animals.

Prey animals don’t have time to work out what’s a genuine threat, their instinct is to react and run without thinking. That’s what she could feel walking through the chutes, just like the cows would.

Unlike the farmers she wasn’t thinking what made sense to them, she was thinking what would scare the cows. All over the US, farmers began to adopt her methods, not because they’re sentimental folk but because they saw that calm cows gained weight quicker and made more profit.

Now half of all beef in the US is prepared using Grandin’s methods. Advertising and marketing are mainly composed of verbal thinkers, people who’ve been to university, which is mainly verbal thinkers.

People who learned to write strategies, briefs and campaigns based on a style of thinking they learned at university. People who create advertising based on intellectual arguments about what should work, according to their own logical thinking.

Maybe it would be a good idea for us to introduce some thinking that was more like Grandin’s: visual thinkers instead of just verbal thinkers.

People who don’t just think like farmers but get down and walk where the cattle walk.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three