Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Theory of Mind - An Autistic Perspective. Just whose mind are we talking about?

Part 1 of what I hope to turn into a rather long essay on Theory Of Mind and autism.

There is a construct commonly used in describing autism known as Theory Of Mind. Autism is traditionally considered to be in part a deficit in this apparently ubiquitous ability of the more normal population. But, as one on the spectrum, I have found the concept itself to be rather ill defined. There is no truly precise definition – sometimes being described as “mind reading” or the ability to infer the mental states of others. Sometimes it is the ability to conceive that other people have thoughts and consciousness. And at other times it may be invoked in tandem with empathy or its absence. In one of its more sinister forms, it is invoked as a trait that defines humanness and that people with autism are missing the essential ingredient that raises them up to full human stature.

Needless to say, I take offense at that last definition and as such I am going to suggest that Theory Of Mind is at best a weak concept, and at worst, fundamentally flawed as a description of what "ails the autistic mind".

I must start with some obvious ideas. First, and foremost, we must recognize that, regardless of the actual brain mechanisms that allow a mind to exist, what happens in the mind is representational. There is no dog in your head. But that word, as soon as its image passed through your eyes and into your brain, invoked a representation of “dogness”. There are no rocks in your brain – but within the mass of brain cells, there is a representation of such a thing effective enough that you will duck your head if you see “a rock” flying towards you. This notion of representation is crucial for this is how we make our way through reality. Our perceptions and processing combine to form functional representations of the world around us.

Another crucial idea is that we heavily filter the information flowing into our brains. This is well documented experimentally, and it makes sense when you consider the amount of information in our environment. We are awash in sensory input. Sight, sound, touch, smell ... a constant barrage of data that we must ruthlessly edit down to manageable chunks that we can assimilate and utilize. From this it follows that the representations we create in our mind are built on partial information. The representation is at its very best, an abbreviated form of the thing it represents.

A third crucial point is how these representations become “real”. By this, I mean that a representation constructed from sensory input is an actual referent to something real that exists outside the mind. Again without delving into the actual mechanisms, the mind maintains a feed back loop between sensory input and its representations. When sensory input conflicts with a representation, the mind adjusts the model. As the model is adjusted, the representation becomes increasingly functional.

What Theory of Mind attempts to explain is how one person's mind represents the mind of another and how functional is the representation. What I hope to illustrate is that discussing representations of another's mind is much more straight forward than discussing the how functional that representation actually is. The creation of that representation is simply the aforementioned cognitive feedback loop between sensory input and output. The functional utility of that representation is a much more complex question because it is heavily bound to culture and context. It is this cultural and contextual component of contemporary Theory Of Mind conceptualizations that fatally weakens the idea.

Next post: A little more about perception and the construction of representations.

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