When Being Human Got His Goat, This Designer Became One | KUOW News and Information

When Being Human Got His Goat, This Designer Became One

May 15, 2016
Originally published on May 16, 2016 12:00 pm

Not long after publishing his first book, London designer Thomas Thwaites found himself with no real job and in relationship trouble. His book, The Toaster Project — about his attempt to build a toaster from scratch — was a huge success, but he found the whole business of being a celebrity thinker a hard act to follow.

To be human is to worry about getting by, doing better, finding love and accepting the march of mortality. Thwaites decided to try to escape the burden of being human — and he would do it by becoming a goat.

"Human life can just be so difficult," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "And you look at a goat and it's just, you know, it's free. It doesn't have any concerns."

Thwaites' new book is GoatMan: How I Took A Holiday From Being Human.


Interview Highlights

On how he was able to walk on all fours

I made a few prototypes myself of this kind of walking frame, but found it actually to be much more difficult to get any kind of vaguely comfortable quadruped walking exoskeleton. And so [I] decided I needed a bit of help and I ended up spending a weird afternoon in the dissection room at the Royal Veterinary College to sort of examine the differences and similarities between a human anatomy and a goat's anatomy.

On eating like a goat

Obviously, goats eat grass. And any human can eat grass, but the trouble is we can't digest it. So I decided I would have to make myself like an artificial rumen. And the rumen is the kind of ... bit of a grazing animal that contains all this weird bacteria which actually lets these animals break down the tough fibers in grass and digest them. ... And I kind of thought maybe I could infect my own gut with the bacteria from a goat's rumen — that turned out to be a bit of a non-starter. However, I did track down this lab where they use artificial rumens. ... And they were very kind and sort of, you know, encouraging until I said, "Yes, and then I'm gonna eat the product of this rumen over the space of six days and survive like a goat in the Alps." And suddenly they got extremely worried because they got concerned that I would give myself like a long-term gut, parasitic infection. And that didn't sound like a nice thing to me. ...

I made this kind of bag that I had strapped to my body, and I could take a mouthful of grass and then chew it up and then spit it into this bag. And this bag ... was intended to be my artificial rumen with the goat bacteria in it. But I just really didn't fancy getting diarrhea for the rest of my life so I ended up having to pressure [cook] what I spat into this bag and made a weird delicious, disgusting grass stew.

On thinking like a goat

I had visited a kind of goat behavioral psychologist — an ethologist — and discussed, like, OK, I want to get into the mind of a goat. Because the whole point of the project wasn't ever to kind of make a costume which made me look like a goat; it was like a reverse costume — it was to make a thing that kind of made me feel like a goat. And he said, "Well, we think that goats don't understand language, obviously, and we also think that they don't have episodic memories," that they can't project themselves into the future, you know, and build scenarios or kind of remember specific kind of stories from their past.

So that was my goal, to switch off those parts of my brain. And to do that I had read about this technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. They get basically a huge, very powerful electromagnet and put it next to your skull. The magnetic field that is generated kind of penetrates into your brain and disrupts the functioning of the synapses in that kind of bit of the brain. I thought, That sounds like a good way of turning off my ability to speak. ...

So there's this particular patch of your cortex which is very important in your ability to speak and [a neuroscientist] put his sort of huge magnet there and switched it on. And, you know, I was reciting this nursery rhyme which I know very well — in fact, "Three Billy Goats Gruff" — and he switched on this magnet and then all of a sudden I just couldn't kind of get the words out.

On how his beard helped him befriend a female goat

One of the things about billy goats is their beard, and they actually try and make their beard as smelly as possible because that's a sort of attractive thing to female goats. And so I think this goat was sort of trying to work out what type of goat was I? ... Weirdly, I think we became friends in the platonic sense. I mean, it's kind of impossible as a human to not tell stories about things. Everything becomes a story, I think, if you're a human, so maybe I'm putting my own vision, my own slant on it. But I did think that, yeah, I've got this connection with this goat.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I'm quite sure I've never asked this question of anyone. Why did you want to become a goat?

THOMAS THWAITES: Because human life can just be so difficult.

SIMON: That's Thomas Thwaites from the studios of the BBC in London. He's a designer who studied at the Royal College of Art. His book, "The Toaster Project," about his attempt to build a toaster from scratch - and, boy, do I mean scratch - was a huge success. But he found the whole business of being a public celebrity thinker a hard act to follow.

To be human is to worry about getting by, doing better, finding love and accepting the march of mortality. He decided to try to escape, not just leave his life in London for a while but the whole burden of being a human being. He describes those six days in "GoatMan: How I Took A Holiday From Being Human." The idea didn't come from a goat at all.

THWAITES: I was actually kind of dog-sitting my niece's dog and feeling at a bit of a low ebb job-wise, kind of moneywise, relationship-wise. And this dog - this kind of happy mutt was just, you know, oblivious to all the pain and suffering that I was feeling. And then I had that thought, you know, you are so lucky.

SIMON: How do you - how did you physically try to become a goat, or at least goat-like in appearance?

THWAITES: I made a few kind of prototypes myself of this kind of walking frame but found it actually to be much more difficult to get any kind of vaguely comfortable sort of quadruped walking exoskeleton. You know, when you're on kind of all fours essentially at the same, you know, eye level as a goat, then the world takes on a very different hue. And there's a lot of kind of green there and you...

SIMON: And not all grass tastes the same, you learned, right?

THWAITES: I quite quickly learned to kind of distinguish between the sort of patches of sweet-tasting grass and this kind of sour, sort of unpleasant stuff. Yeah, so I guess I became a bit of a grass connoisseur, yeah.

SIMON: Good for you. You wanted to get away from language.

THWAITES: Yeah, because the whole point of the project - it wasn't ever to kind of make a costume which made me look like a goat. It was to - you know, it was like a reverse costume. It was to make a thing that kind of made me feel like a goat. And we think that goats don't understand language, obviously, and we also think that they don't have episodic memory. So they can't project themselves into the future, you know, and build scenarios or kind of remember specific kind of stories from their past.

So that was my goal to switch off those parts of my brain. And to do that, I had read about this technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. They get basically a huge, very powerful electric magnet and put it next to your skull. The magnetic field disrupts the functioning of the synapses in that kind of bit of the brain.

SIMON: Did it work?

THWAITES: So there's this particular patch of your cortex which is very important in your ability to speak. And, you know, I was reciting this nursery rhyme which I know very well - in fact, "Three Billy Goats Gruff" - and, yeah, and he switched on this magnet. And then all of a sudden, I just couldn't kind of get the words out.

SIMON: Mr. Thwaites, there's a photo toward the end of the book - I hope this isn't too personal - but there you are on all fours in a white bicycle helmet, trying to fit in with the herd. And there is a goat that is either kissing or licking you.

THWAITES: Yeah, yeah. I think it's neither of those. I think it's smelling my beard. One of the things about billy goats is their kind of beard. And that's - they actually try and make their beard as smelly as possible because that's the kind of attractive thing to female goats. And so I think this goat was sort of trying to work out what type of goat was I. I think...

SIMON: Well, forgive me, but, I mean, did it go anywhere?

THWAITES: Weirdly, I think we became friends, in a - you know, in the platonic sense. I mean, it's kind of impossible as a human to not tell stories about things. Everything becomes a story, I think, if you're a human. So maybe it's just kind of putting my own vision, my own slant on it. But I did think that, yeah, you know, I've got this connection with this goat.

SIMON: Well, I hope you're very happy together.

THWAITES: (Laughter).

SIMON: Thomas Thwaites. His new book is "GoatMan: How I Took A Holiday From Being Human." Thanks so much.

THWAITES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY GOATHERD")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yodeling). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.