Bonus clip from Thinking in Pictures, with Dr. Temple Grandin.
Narrator: Thank you for downloading this bonus clip from This Is Your Brain. In this extended outtake from our interview with Temple Grandin, we get an insight into Dr. Grandin’s unique thinking process and how her memory is organized. She describes this process as her visual database, where all her individual memories are indexed by discrete visual details.
This narrative of her investigations into the Boeing 737 Max Eight disasters illustrates how her self-described, bottom-up thinking is based on freely associating a string of detailed images.
Phil Stieg: I was curious about how being a visual thinker would have been useful in the plane crash that occurred.
Temple Grandin: Well, at Boeing. Okay, let me tell you about that. I was out in the road with Brad. He’s a guy that has helped me sell books and runs a book table. And we’re both aviation nuts. We like to look at goofy things like Airbuses trying to take off, like fighter jets, and all that kind of goofy stuff like that. And I heard on the radio that they’d had this plane crash.
I only knew two things about it. The plane was brand new. And then when I looked it up on Google (I looked it up on my phone, actually), the radar takeoff path (I can’t demonstrate, I forgot this is audio only). The radar takeoff path looked like a roller coaster. I got that off the radar tracking thing that you can get on any airplane. And I’m going, something is drastically wrong here.
And the next night I gave a talk and I’m going, Boeing is going to be in deep poopoo over this. And something had to be drastically wrong with a brand new airplane for this to happen. Then, as more things came out about it, about the broken angle of attack sensor, I looked up to find out what that was. I didn’t know what it was.
What I learned, and I have to really force myself not to use my hands to demonstrate how it works, because this is all auditory, and to keep my hands still so they don’t make noise. I have to really work on that, press on the table so I don’t use my hands.
And an angle of attack sensor is about the size of a sharpie pen, and it sticks out under the cockpit window, and it measures air angle. And it will tell you if a plane is stalling. Stalling in an airline – you could flip over backwards. I mean, like really super bad. And that had broken. So here’s this very delicate little thing.
Then I started looking up more about how angle of attack sensors work. And then I learned that Boeing wanted to get big fuel-efficient engines to work on the old 737 airframe so they wouldn’t have to retrain the pilots. And these great big, gigantic engines act like wings, which make the plane more prone to stalling.
So they come up with this computer called the M-cast that makes it fly more like an old Boeing 737. But if the plane were to stall, the computer would automatically shove the nose down to stop the stall. And they wired that computer to a single angle of attack sensor. The plane has two of them. Why did you do that? Why did you do that?
Another thing is, I learned that birds break these sensors all the time and when I break the sensor, the default setting should be, fly normally and go back to the airport. The default setting was stall. Also an indicator called angle of attack disagree, which will tell you if one of them busted, didn’t get put on the cheaper models of the plane.
When I look at this, I’m going, how could they do this? It’s so basic! And I think in the beginning it was an innocent visual thinking mistake. Now later on, things are not so innocent. Let’s leave it way.
Phil Stieg: That probably a budgetary cut.
Temple Grandin: No, this would not have been expensive to fix in the beginning. This would have been very cheap to fix. I then sat on a plane just a few weeks ago with a Boeing engineer and we discussed this. And I found out that somebody in the shop, a mechanic in the shop who could see it, warned the engineers and they did not pay attention. That’s what I found out.
And then I did some other meetings up in Seattle talking to people that had a lot of contacts aviation, industry and the shop people in the factory had warned them. I didn’t know that when we wrote the book. But you need that visual, you see. But I’m seeing an angle of attack sensor right now in my mind and they’re little fragile things. And of course, after I read about it, I went down to the airport and I looked at them on every single plane I could see down there. And I’m going to a visual thinker, how could you make this mistake? And in the beginning I think it was innocent. As it progressed, it was not so innocent.
Phil Stieg: Sorry to hear that.
Producer – off mic: Actually, I like the fact that you talked about putting your hands on the desk.
Temple Grandin: Yeah, Well, I did because I started, like for the airplane, I was going to show when the plane took off, the radar looked like this. I remember looking at that flight radar and I’m going, what’s going on here? It shouldn’t look like a roller coaster. Something is drastically wrong. And a brand new airplane. And when I first saw it, I didn’t even know what brand of airplane it was.
And then I looked up stuff online. We were in the car. So I looked up some stuff on my phone and then learned more about it. How could you make this mistake? And when we wrote the book, I didn’t know the mechanics had warned them.
Okay, now I had to press my hands down on the table to keep from…this is what you didn’t want. You didn’t want that. I realized that.
And now what I’m seeing, I had to do read the intro for audiobook, for visual thinking and we did it in our radio station and I was holding the paper. So we had to make a place to put the paper on. And they got the thing with the foot pedal for the drum because they had a drum set there and put a plastic sign on it for headphones. Now it’s my easel for my paper and I’m seeing that right now. And even took a picture of it because I thought it was kind of cool.