Alexandra Horowitz


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

Author Quotes

By standard intelligence texts, the dogs have failed at the puzzle. I believe, by contrast that they have succeeded magnificently. They have applied a novel tool to the task. We are that tool. Dogs have learned this--and they see us as fine general-purpose tools, too: useful for protection, acquiring food, providing companionship. We solve the puzzles of closed doors and empty water dishes. In the folk psychology of dogs, we humans are brilliant enough to extract hopelessly tangled leashes from around trees; we can conjure up an endless bounty of foodstuffs and things to chew. How savvy we are in dogs' eyes! It's a clever strategy to turn to us after all. The question of the cognitive abilities of dogs is thereby transformed; dogs are terrific at using humans to solve problems, but not as good at solving problems when we're not around.

He was blessed with the ability to admire the unlovely. Or, I should say, he was blessed with the inability to feel there is a difference between lovely and un-.

Part of seeing what is on an ordinary block is seeing that everything visible has a history. It arrived at the spot where you found it at some time, was crafted or whittled or forged at some time, filled a certain role or existed for a particular function. It was touched by someone (or no one), and touches someone (or no one) now.

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.

Cilia, tiny hair cells that stand upright in the cochlea, sway and jiggle when the vibration of air?the rush of air that is sound ? wends its way into the inner ear. So stimulated, the cilia trigger nerves to fire, translating that vibration into electrical signals that give us the experience of hearing something. If those vibrations are strong enough, the hair cells bend deeply under their force. Air pressure can mow, crush, or sever the hairs until they are splayed, fused, floppy, or fractured ? an earful of well-trodden grass. Bent and damaged enough because of exposure to loud sounds for prolonged periods, the hair cells do not grow back; the ears lose their neural downiness. The world becomes progressively quieter for the person attached to those ears, until there are no sounds, no music, no noise.

How we act defines who we are.

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world out there. Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.

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.

Cities are crowded with sources of sound regularly approaching this threshold of hearing loss. ? Enormous numbers of man-made sounds occur in those same frequencies. We often find high pure tones the most irritating: the screech of a subway turning a tight corner or braking, at 3,000 or 4,000 hertz, or the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz. These sounds clobber us because of the shape of the human ear, which allows high frequencies to find their way efficiently to the cochlea. The very design of the ear amplifies these vibrations for waiting hair cells. But it is not just our ears that find the sound distressing; it is our brains. If we know that we are hearing what we have already deemed an ?annoying sound,? our bodies react to it as though it is: we have a sympathetic nervous system response, usually reserved for final exams, suddenly appearing lions, and the sight of our beloved. We sweat, and then we notice that we are sweating, and we sweat some more.

I am not encouraging productivity ? and I don?t mind that that?s the case. I value the moments in my life that are productive, certainly, but only the ones that are productive and also present. Writing the book was ?productive,? literally ? it was a product; it was also an enjoyable engagement in the present. So it doesn?t have to be either-or. But [I have also] spent time in a job where you then wonder, a year later, what happened to that year. And if I had bothered to sit on the subway, commuting to my office, looking ? looking ? I think that those moments would have been memorialized, and I would know what happened to that year.

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This is what makes the urban animal so elusive. He is actually attempting to elude us, and our imaginations do not seem to account for animals (aside from pets) in cities. Even our sense of scale is distorted when considering urban wildlife corridors and passageways. Remembering, perhaps, a childhood inability to scale a fence or shimmy through a gate, we find it incredible that urban animals are not thwarted by the seemingly impenetrable stone walls and chain-linked barbed-wire fencing we present to them. But the descriptions of nearly all urban animals include an impressive dimension: the size hole the animal can squeeze into, through, or out of. Raccoons, even as adults, can fit in a four-inch space between grates, flattening themselves and taking advantage of their broad, short skulls. Squirrels fit through a hole the size of a quarter; mice, through dime-sized holes. Look around you on your next walk. See any holes at all? Gaps between stair and building? Between sidewalk and curb? An animal goes there (after you have passed).

Winds over the rivers flanking Manhattan Island speed down side streets on land. ? Tall buildings create other wind effects: winds that hit high on a building rush down its face, sometimes creating enough pressure to make passage in and out of the doorway difficult. Sheer glass towers can pull air not just down, but also up from below (the Bernoulli principle) ? as well as lift any skirts being worn in the vicinity.

Decibels are the subjective experience of the intensity of a sound. Zero decibels marks the threshold for hearing a sound?and in a modern city, there is never a moment of zero decibel silence. We mostly reside in the 60?80 decibel range, which includes sounds from normal conversation across the dinner table, vacuum cleaners, and traffic noise. Once a sound gets to 85 decibels, it begins to damage the mechanism of our ears irreparably. The reason lies in the mechanism itself.

I am, professionally, an observer of animals ? by which I mean nonhuman animals. I actually have been less interested in looking at people? But of course, as it turns out, the human animal is also infinitely more complex than I give us credit for. And I appreciated ? a lot ? the fact that, at the end of this book, I could take a walk with anybody ? it didn?t have to be an expert? ? and I became more appreciative of anyone?s perspective. If you can just get somebody to talk about what they see when they?re walking down the street, they will almost inevitably be seeing something different than you. Because they are a different person, and there?s a whole background there. And, actually, I think that is a kind of writerly trick ? it?s sitting in the restaurant and making up stories about the people who sit around you? being interested in [them] and being able to imagine, backwards, their stories.

Simply by being outside on the street, people are inadvertently revealing their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders or set of their jaw.

Those canids such as foxes, who do not live in a social group, appear to have a much more limited range of things to say. Even the kinds of sounds foxes make are indicative of their more solitary nature: they make sounds that travel well over long distances.

With Kalman, walking around the block entered a fourth dimension? Eventually, we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all of the later letters of the alphabet. ? Objects and people on our route became possibilities for interaction, rather than decoration or obstruction, as the urban pedestrian might define them. I had not noticed, until forced to by Kalman?s sociability, how I was engaging in a fundamentally social activity by walking out in public.

Do not sag with exhaustion. There is no mandate; only opportunity. Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture. But by making your way through this book?by merely picking it up, perhaps?you, reader, are in a new culture, one that values looking. The unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. Look!

I don?t mean to be testifying against productivity per se, but I do see that it?s certainly mindless, the way that we approach there being only one route to living one?s life. And it is within us, this capacity to alter that ? at any moment, even within that framework ? to change your state.

Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently.

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? ?

Dogs also have a higher flicker-fusion rate than humans do: seventy or even eighty cycles per second. This provides an indication why dogs have not taken up a particular foible of persons: our constant gawking at the television screen. Like film, the image on your (non-digital) TV is really a sequence of still shots sent quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing a continuous stream. But it?s not fast enough for dog vision. They see the individual frames and the dark space between them too, as though stroboscopically.

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