Senior TED Fellow, author of Animal Madness, and Writer-in-Residence at Stanford University School of Medicine
Dr. Laurel Braitman’s engaging talks pack theaters around the world, and draw upon her years of interdisciplinary research into how people navigate the most trying and stressful moments of their lives. She writes about the surprising methods we can use to boost our mental health, respond to the challenges of daily life, and connect more empathetically with the people around us.
Braitman is the author of The New York Times bestseller Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves—now in its third printing and translated into six languages. Inspired by her dog Oliver’s debilitating separation anxiety and aggression, Braitman embarked on a journey around the world to study emotionally disturbed animals and the people who care for them. Her research led her to a remarkable and moving discovery—understanding the emotions of distressed animals can help us better understand our own. Receiving rave reviews, this “lovely, big-hearted book” (The New York Times) was listed as one of Discover Magazine’s top five summer reads, a top science read by Wired, and one of Amazon’s best books of the year. Her story was also featured on Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and other television and radio series around the world.
Managing Uncertainty: Knowing When to Do Nothing Will Help You Survive Anything
In times of chaos and uncertainty, one natural impulse is to take immediate action. It makes us feel like we’re taking charge and making progress—but this is often nothing more than an illusion. Laurel Braitman—NYT bestselling author and uncertainty anthropologist—draws upon more than a decade of her own research, emerging neuroscience, and behavioral psychology to show how cultivating stillness might be the best way to overcome confusion and disorder.
This research, however, also stems from a more personal place: from the age of 3 to 17, Braitman grew up with a father who was dying of cancer. Without knowing when the end would come, she was forced to say goodbye many times, only to watch her father recover once again. This meant living in a state of semi-permanent uncertainty—a hard life, surely, but also one that was both beautiful and instructive. Above all, it taught her the value of getting comfortable with not knowing what’s coming next—with practicing stillness, even while life comes apart.
Using lessons gleaned everywhere from the nanoscience laboratories of MIT to exotic locales (such as the tropical forests of Southeastern Thailand to the gray whale mating and calving lagoons of Baja, Mexico) to her own moving experience as child and young adult, Braitman will help audiences understand the surprising power of stillness. These are the strategies used by top physicians, animal behaviorists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists who use stillness to their advantage as they set about changing the world for the better. And these are the tools we need, not just to survive times of uncertainty, but to thrive in them—often by simply standing still.
Animal Madness: What Animal Behavior Can Tell Us About Our Minds, Our Hearts, and Our Place on Earth
Laurel Braitman spent years studying animals as an anthropologist and historian, but it was her own dog Oliver that taught her something new about animal behavior. Oliver suffered debilitating separation anxiety, was prone to aggression, and may even have attempted suicide. Through caring for him, Braitman was forced to acknowledge the continuity between our species—nonhuman animals can lose their minds, and when they do, it often looks like human mental illness.
If animals suffer like we do, they also heal the same way too: with love, medicine, therapy, and the knowledge that someone understands why they suffer. Such discoveries reinforce the truth that we are only different from other animals by degree—that they are our cousins, rather than our property. Generally, a fear of anthropomorphism has held back the behavioral sciences: if we could see ourselves in the minds and emotions of animals, Braitman argues, the world would be a more equitable place; pets wouldn’t need pharmaceuticals; zoos would be emotionally and scientifically rewarding; and our food would be much healthier. Moreover, treating ourselves like the animals we are has powerful benefits for our own mental and physical health. Studies show how spending time in nature, devoted to play and to learning new skills, and interacting with companions is as important for our well-being as it is for theirs.
Braitman’s message is a call for a deeper sense of empathy, beginning with the beings with the least power on the planet. This can help us let go of trauma, rediscover our natural compassion, and connect more authentically to others. Of course, such a shift in consciousness isn’t easy. In fact, it will take the resilience of elephants, the empathy of bonobos, the curiosity of whales, and the integrity and compassion of humanity. But doing so has untold rewards: for our own lives, the lives of other animals, and for the longevity and health of all life on earth.
Laurelâ€™s discussion had us pause and reflect on the underlying emotional, intellectual, and generally human (letâ€™s say animal) issues we face in our lives; the engagement was deep and even moving, andâ€”most importantâ€”lasting.
How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves
For the first time, a historian of science draws evidence from across the world to show how humans and other animals are astonishingly similar when it comes to their feelings and the ways in which they lose their minds.
Charles Darwin developed his evolutionary theories by looking at physical differences in Galapagos finches and fancy pigeons. Alfred Russell Wallace investigated a range of creatures in the Malay Archipelago. Laurel Braitman got her lessons closer to home—by watching her dog. Oliver snapped at flies that only he could see, ate Ziploc bags, towels, and cartons of eggs. He suffered debilitating separation anxiety, was prone to aggression, and may even have attempted suicide. Her experience with Oliver forced Laurel to acknowledge a form of continuity between humans and other animals that, first as a biology major and later as a PhD student at MIT, she’d never been taught in school. Nonhuman animals can lose their minds. And when they do, it often looks a lot like human mental illness.
Thankfully, all of us can heal. As Laurel spent three years traveling the world in search of emotionally disturbed animals and the people who care for them, she discovered numerous stories of recovery: parrots that learn how to stop plucking their feathers, dogs that cease licking their tails raw, polar bears that stop swimming in compulsive circles, and great apes that benefit from the help of human psychiatrists. How do these animals recover? The same way we do: with love, with medicine, and above all, with the knowledge that someone understands why we suffer and what can make us feel better.
After all of the digging in the archives of museums and zoos, the years synthesizing scientific literature, and the hours observing dog parks, wildlife encounters, and amusement parks, Laurel found that understanding the emotional distress of animals can help us better understand ourselves.
- Exclusives What Are You Reading?: Shetterly, Jackson, and Anand
- Politics When Donald Meets Hillary: James Fallows’ Pre-Debate Atlantic Cover Story
- Innovation Watch: Tech’s Top Innovators Shine on Amber MacArthur’s Bloomberg North
- Authors Margaret Atwood’s Latest? The Stunning Graphic Novel Angel Catbird