Theory of Mind and Self

031110-0441-horizontal-transparent copyI’d been studying Asperger’s and autism in connection to human evolution for maybe ten years before it dawned on me, after reading Michael Fitzgerald’s Autism and Creativity, that Asperger’s was a feature of my childhood.  As I was growing up, people seemed opaque to me.  I was in speech therapy almost all those years.  I had a strange sense of humor.  I was astonishingly gullible.  My closest friend was a boy that I later realized had Asperger’s.  He was also a math genius and a musician.  I was a collector and an artist.

Over time, it grew clearer to me what other people were thinking and feeling, particularly regarding how they were relating to me.  My obsessions grew integrated with my goals.  I became far less split or self conflicted.

The split that I experienced had perhaps less to do with my Asperger’s tendencies than with a childhood characterized by extreme stress.  But, I’m not sure.

People with autism aren’t generally understood to display classic personality splits featuring conflicts with self, self deprecation or a deep feeling of personal responsibility for what is wrong.  That split would suggest a developed theory of mind, with a mind in conflict, assigning responsibility for difficulties to a self that feels separate.  Nevertheless, there are degrees of split depending on where one sits on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum.  I’ve observed those with Asperger’s feeling deeply divided, assigning to self responsibility for a life characterized by distress.

It was often, if not usually, the case that children with Asperger’s were isolated from most social groups and often were targeted with teasing.  I was teased when others discovered that I would believe most anything I was told.  This occasionally would make me a center of attention when a joke could be constructed around my believing whatever had been imagined.  I often felt humiliated, furious and alone.  I would assign blame to myself for my feeling of isolation.  I expect that this is a common experience for those with Asperger’s.

One way I would adjust was to recoil from those that the class shunned, boys with Asperger’s.  I felt like I could blend in with the “normal” side, and mostly I did.  Yet, I often maintained a feeling I’d be “discovered.”

I was terrified of being singled out for torment.  At the same time, I felt powerfully attracted to people on an individual basis or while playing sports.  I spent no small amount of my childhood collecting boys to play baseball and football.  I proactively sought out playmates.  Yet, I only liked groups when we were playing games.  Mostly, I engaged in various collecting hobbies with another boy.  I introduced many friends to new hobbies such as collecting stamps, coins, rocks, miscellaneous stuff and comics.  I was obsessed with comics.  This was the 1950s and 1960s.

The idea I’m trying to tease out right now is that autism theory suggests that neurodiverse individuals maintain an experience characterized by the “other” as often absent or inscrutable.  Yet, as children, experience is often characterized by uniquely high degrees of stress in social situations because those with autism and Asperger’s are often singled out as different and worthy of receiving negative attention.  This tends to engender self reflection as possible sources for the distress, and malaise is explored and evaluated.  I’ve observed in myself and folks with Asperger’s a tendency to assign to the self blame for being “different” and blame of self for the experience of ongoing distress.  In other words, in some ways Asperger’s individuals have a heightened theory of mind as they experience a deeply personal divide.  They may not be able to easily intuit what is happening in others, but they often engage in a struggle characterized by two sides, and they take both sides in the conflict.

I say such an individual is able to take both sides in the conflict because the person evidently participates in both the placating and blaming polarity in the struggle, identifying with both sides, taking turns.

This begs a question.  Perhaps theory of mind is not an ability to experience both sides of a polarity but an ability to have that experience, to some degree, simultaneously.  Do neurotypicals have an ability to experience simultaneous identification with another while being with self, while the neurodiverse, even while in relationship with self, are only able to identify with one at one time?

Clearly, the neurotypicals are often just as split within themselves as any person with Asperger’s.  A question is:  Do neurotypicals have some brain-structure advantage when it comes to identifying simultaneously with both aspects of the split?

I am suggesting that theory of mind is not just an estimation of what goes on within another person.  It is also an ability to identify with what is going on within the self.

Proceed to author’s FREE book download on this subject (The book is called Evolution, Autism and Social Change). 10 minute introductory video here.

on 03/8/10 in featured, The Unconscious | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. abfh says:

    Andrew, have you read Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher’s paper on theory of mind and autism?

    She points out that language impairment is a major confounding factor in theory of mind studies, thus rendering any conclusions about lack of theory of mind highly questionable, and that brain imaging studies have not shown any structural deficits in autistic brains with regard to theory of mind.

  2. Andrew Lehman says:

    abfh, I’m not familiar with the study. Sounds interesting. Language impairment being a major confounding factor makes perfect sense. Still, we’re not talking about autism as an impairment or deficit but a condition surrounded by an inappropriate environment. I wouldn’t be looking for structural deficits in the brain, but what Geschwin and Galaburda called anomalous dominance or two hemispheres the same (large) size.

    In other words, theory of mind may be partly a result of a pruned right hemisphere, a condition, the current common default condition, that also results in language facility.

  3. Well for starters I do consider Fitzgerald to be a bit of a plonker and a hack who would diagnose Schroedingers cat if you gave him half a chance (perhaps he already has)

    I have long had this contention with thery of mind, in that all it is is a trope, a literary fiction, a philosophic position and no real thing in itsef at all. It’s no more than a thery of unicorns, because the whole notion of mind is in itself up for grabs.

    Mind is essentially in itself a construct that allows the manipulation of certain kinds of data for social interaction, but can’t necessarily be said to exist as any kind of entity independant of the brain and body, and consciousness is no less elusive as a concept either, it may be nothing more than the momentary shift in attention between a series of motoric funtions, which begs the question whether there can even be such a notion that is described as experience.

    That very much seems to be the position of a lot of cutting edge neuroscientists anyway, at least those who understand philosophy, rather than the more down to earth ones who just write no more than scientific journalism.

    At a mundane level however we do have to come down from the high flown philosophy to adopt a pragmatism, fictive though a lot of it may be.

    Just as Dr Johnson metaphorically kicks his toe against hard matter that is not at all what it appears to be at a higher level of resolution.

  4. And jumping back into the arena on the nebulous chance that I do actually exist.

    ABFH Gernsbacher is not the only fish in the pond when it comes to confounding the earlier studies into ToM from the linguistic viewpoint, there are studies that have tried to eliminate any confusion there and the further from a task requiring specific levels of understanding in instruction, the more equivocal the results get.

    As for ToM we all know one of the great progenitors of the Thery, SBC who took the notion from Premack and Woodruffs study of Chimpanzees in the first place, has moved on in search of another great oversimplification of autism.

    He has moved on but his bloody book still finds reprints and new editions. Just as much as Happes repudiatiated study of autitistic autobiography is still in print in the latest edition of Friths book which apart from the translation of Asperger’s original paper is well out of date now.

    That’s the problem, the cutting edge moves on but for the more scientifically inclined general reader, or beginner into a course of study on autism, the old stuff is still out there perpetuating a particular meme, based on a shallow understanding of what empathy is or might be.

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