Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra
Horowitz

American Psychologist and Scientist, Dog Cognition Researcher and Author, Psychology Professor at Barnard

Author Quotes

What is considered aggressive is culturally and generationally relative. German shepherds were on the top of the list after World War II; in the 1990s Rottweilers and Dobermans were scorned; the American Staffordshire terrier (also known as the pit bull) is the current b?te noire. Their classification has more to do with recent events and public perception than with their intrinsic nature. Recent research found that of all breeds, dachshunds were the most aggressive to both their own owners and to strangers. Perhaps this is underreported because a snarling dachshund can be picked up and stashed away in a tote bag. 13

Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. ? To concentrate, to pay attention, is viewed as a brow-furrowing exercise. Sit still, don?t blink, and attend? This may do for a moment of concentration, but it is not the way to better attention in your daily life. For that, we need to know what attention is. The very concept is odd. Is it an ability, a tendency, a skill? Is it processed in a special nugget in the brain, or by your eyes and ears? ?

Three hours of walking with Shaw later, I felt relieved, for the moment, of my compulsion to read what was readable, to parse text when I saw it. Surprisingly, this relief came not from avoiding text, but from seeking it out ? only to zoom in on the details held within. It was a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees. Rather than words, I saw the components of words. Some small part of my brain (the linguistic part) rested; the shape-identifying part hummed with activity.

Tinbergen noticed that songbirds did not prey on just any insect that had recently hatched in the vicinity; instead, they tended to prefer one kind of bug ? say, a particular species of beetle ? at a time. As the numbers of young beetles rose through a season, the birds gorged on these beetlettes, ignoring any other available young insects nearby. Tinbergen suggested that, once the birds found a food they liked, they began to look just for that food, ignoring all others. He called this a search image: a mental image of a beetle?with its characteristic beetly shape, size, and colors?with which the bird scans her environment.

To see a scene is not to stare fixedly at one point; it is to open our eyes to everything in front of us, looking to and fro. Similarly, to smell a scene, Finn approached it from the side, from above, sniffing the air to see if the artist who concocted this particular odor splotch was anywhere nearby. A dog can smell something different in each noseful ? and there is something different there to smell. This taught me something about smells: they are not at fixed points, nor are they static and unchanging. They are a haze, a cloud, spreading out from their source. Viewed as odors, the street is a mishmash of overlapping object identities, each crowding into the next?s odorous scene.

The complement of remembering so thoroughly can be the strange inability to forget anything at all.

To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen. Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns. I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times.

The dog nose has hundreds of millions of receptors in that nose; they even have a second kind of nose above the hard palate of their mouth, called a vomeronasal or Jacobson?s organ. Molecules such as hormones that do not stir the receptors of the nose to fire may find a rousing welcome here. All animals house hormones, which are involved in bodily and brain activities, and those hormones we emit, called pheromones, are detected by the vomeronasal organ. This is how a dog could detect another dog?s stress or sexual readiness in a spray of her urine left on the ground.

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block ? the street and everything on it?as a living being that could be observed. In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.

The inside of the nose is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with specialized olfactory receptors waiting for an odorant molecule ? a smell ? to land on them. In the back of the nose is an ?olfactory recess? separated from the main respiratory pathway by a bony plate, allowing smelling to be distinct from breathing, and letting odors loiter for a long time to be considered. Though we tend to think that only some things are smelly ? a spring bloom, a trash can, a new car, a bus?s exhaust ? just about everything has a scent. Anything with molecules that can be ?volatile,? that can evaporate into the air and travel toward a receptor in someone?s nose, smells.

Viewed with this lens, the city feels less artificial. The cold stone is natural, almost living: it absorbs water, warms under the sun, and sloughs its skin in rain. Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent. And viewed as a natural landscape, the city feels less permanent: even the strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water, and time.

The longtime model used by psychologists is that of a ?spotlight? that picks out particular items of interest to examine, bringing some things into focus and awareness while leaving other things in the dim, dusty sidelines. The metaphor makes me feel like a headlight-wearing spelunker who can only see what is right in front of her in the darkness of the cave. Such a comparison can be misleading, because in fact one can still report on what was within one?s peripheral vision at rates better than chance. And despite that spotlight, we seem to miss huge elements of the thing we are ostensibly attending to.

What allowed me to see the bits that I would have otherwise missed was not the expertise of my walkers, per se; it was their simple interest in attending. I selected these walkers for their ability to boost my own selective attention. An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.

The other part of seeing what is on the block is appreciating how limited our own view is. We are limited by our sensory abilities, by our species membership, by our narrow attention?at least the last of which can be overcome.

What I heard had morphed from noxious urban noise into being the characteristic, flavorful clatter of my city. I enjoyed the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies; I looked at pigeons hoping they would coo; I stared down passersby, silently egging them on to hum or cough. I counted squeals and squeaks and squawks and measured them against whines and whistles. Each sound felt invited, a pleasure.

The perceptions of infants are remarkable. That infants reliably develop into adults, who for all their wisdom or kindness are often unremarkable, blinds us to this fact. The infant?s world is a case study in confused attention. ? The world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: it is all light and dark, shadow and brightness.

What is considered aggressive is culturally and generationally relative. German shepherds were on the top of the list after World War II; in the 1990s Rottweilers and Dobermans were scorned; the American Staffordshire terrier (also known as the pit bull) is the current bˆte noire. Their classification has more to do with recent events and public perception than with their intrinsic nature. Recent research found that of all breeds, dachshunds were the most aggressive to both their own owners and to strangers. Perhaps this is underreported because a snarling dachshund can be picked up and stashed away in a tote bag. 13

The result of these walks on my head is tangible: they refined what I can see.

What makes that ?noise? and not just neutral ?sound? is another question. The avant-garde composer John Cage famously declared that ?music is sounds,? and thus appropriated ordinary sounds to be his music. In one of his compositions, the orchestra is silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds; whatever sounds come in through the window of the concert hall or emerge from the increasingly restless and puzzled audience constitute his music. Still, if Cage was right, it need not follow that all sounds are music(al). Any sound we do not like we call noise, thereby introducing a subjective assessment to the din. That subjectivity is always there in talking about noise.

The street changed for me during those months, as it certainly changes for anyone who is temporarily or permanently injured, or suffers the ultimate injury of simply aging.

When it comes to describing our potential physical and cognitive capacities, we are individuals first, and members of the human race second.

The thing you are doing now affects the thing you see next.

When you look closely at anything familiar, it kind of transmogrifies into something unfamiliar ? the sort of cognitive version of saying your name again and again and again, or a word again and again and again, and getting a different sound of it after you?ve repeated it forty times.

Their gaits had few asymmetries, were smooth and loose, and wasted no energy doing anything but going forward. From an evolutionary perspective, efficiency is the key. Our ancestors may have been easily outrun by any potential predator ? we are not a particularly fast species ? but we have endurance: those proto-humans who could keep running won their lives. And they could do that if their gait was efficient.

While I had a vague sense of Hmm, something?s amiss . . . , they could diagnose. It is not only the diagnosis that I valued; it is the way that knowledge orients their looking ? an ability to ?see what they see,? as it were.

First Name
Alexandra
Last Name
Horowitz
Bio

American Psychologist and Scientist, Dog Cognition Researcher and Author, Psychology Professor at Barnard