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What We’re Reading

Last weekend was a big one for me, the weekend of the annual Minnesota Horse Expo at the State Fair grounds in St. Paul. Yes, I am a horse owner and am obsessed with training my horse. I learn so much about learning from the process of training my horse. Believe me, keep reading this blog and you’ll be hearing way more than you care to on the horse subject. But the Horse Expo was even more exciting than usual this year, because I got to attend a lecture about how animals think by Temple Grandin.

Temple Grandin is autistic, and has recognized that her autism allows her to see the world the way animals do – in pictures rather than linguistically like “normal” people. This realization led her to become an animal behaviorist, designing one third of all the livestock handling facilities in the United States. I’ve been reading her book, Animals in Translation and am absolutely fascinated by the connections between animals, learning and museums.

According to Temple Grandin, in Animals in Translation, all animals and humans share some core emotions. One of the most powerful is the seeking emotion. That’s right, according to Ms. Grandin, seeking is an emotion best described as intense interest, engaged curiosity, and eager anticipation. We all have a powerful urge to seek out what we need to stay alive, and it comes from pleasure centers in the brain being stimulated when our seeking transmitters are firing. In tests, the part of the brain that is stimulated by seeking stops firing once the sought object is found, so it’s the seeking activity itself that is so enjoyable.

Ms. Grandin points out that this is probably why some people enjoy hunting and fishing so much, even though many of those same people don’t plan to eat what they are hunting for. Hunting for a bargain at a flea market, or the perfect recipe on the Internet is the same kind of activity.

Ms. Grandin also points out that all animals like new things. Pigs and dogs will choose a new toy over a lot of old toys, even though the new toy might not be as good as the old ones. Ever wonder why children always want new toys when they already have plenty of great toys? Turns out that novelty may be a big motivator in our seeking behaviors, and it’s probably hard wired, not learned.

Suddenly the visitor’s love of scavenger hunts in museums makes all kinds of sense. I’ve heard art museum educators groan over requests for more, new scavenger hunts, and I may have issued a few of those groans myself, thinking that people really aren’t learning a lot about art in those scavenger hunt activities. Guess what? Those scavenger hunting visitors are firing on all kinds of cylinders, and learning that the museum is a place for intense interest, engaged curiosity, and eager anticipation. What could be better than that? I never thought I would hear myself say it, but I think we ought to be producing more new scavenger hunts!