Sunday, February 19, 2012

Theory of Mind - An Autistic Perspective. Part 2

Second in a series of posts on Theory Of Mind and autism. If you haven't already, you should read part 1 here: PART 1

Recall from part 1 the idea that what exists in our minds are representations of the things around us. We perceive stimuli, process it into representations, and correlate those representations to the external stimuli in an feedback loop that allows us to adjust those representation to increase their functional utility in a complex world.

To delve into the perceptual issues surrounding Theory Of Mind we need to take a little side trip. We need to visit the distant, and rather odd, planet Flibnarz. It's a strange place. Filled with strange plants, strange animals, and a strange people called Flibnians (though I have it on good authority that they believe it is we humans that are strange).

One of the oddest things about this place is a curious geological feature that appears nearly everywhere on the planet. Virtually the entire planet is dotted with blue and pink monoliths. They're quite harmless, even if a bit annoying, One simply avoids bumping into them by walking around them. Knocking them down isn't a good idea for the Flibnians since these odd piles of stone are symbiotically tied to the ecosystem of the planet. But that's another story. Suffice it to say, an important skill for a Flibnian is the ability to walk about their world without bumping head first into a hard pink and blue monolith.

Another oddity of the planet Flibnarz is that not all Flibnians perceive monoliths in the same way. For some unknown reason, some Flibnians are more receptive to blue and others perceive pink with greater ease. Some perceive blue squares, and subsequently create their mind's representation of the monoliths consisting solely of blue squares. The pink perceivers create an image of monoliths made entirely of pink triangles. Fortunately, both representations are functional. Both allow the Flibnians to successfully navigate their world without continually bumping into monoliths and bruising their noses.

But there does happen to be a problem on the planet Flibnarz. It turns out that the vast majority of Flibnians perceive red triangles. Only a very few see monoliths as blue squares. Recall that BOTH the internal representations are functional. Both allow freedom of movement around the monoliths without inconvenience or injury. But a problem arises when Flibnians talk about the monoliths. The vast majority go on about pink triangles. They describe their structure and properties in terms of pink triangles. Blue squares don't even exist in their description. Imagine the confusion of one the rare blue square seers. "What is everyone talking about? What is a pink triangle? This makes no sense! Monoliths are made of blue squares". Well, CLEARLY, the "Blue Squares" are delusional. EVERYONE knows a monolith is composed of pink triangles.

And so over time, Flibnians create a vast and complex culture based on the truth of the pink triangle. Their architecture, science, religion and entertainment are an exultation of the pink triangle. Their fashion, ceremonies, speech and thought are all infused with pink triangleness. Alas, the Blue Square Flibnians end up isolated and marginalized, not because they cannot perceive monoliths, but only because they perceive them differently. And the fact that they CAN perceive them is cause for great concern among the Pink Triangle crowd. They see a Blue Square successfully avoid the monoliths, but they cannot participate in the beautiful, complex society created around the monoliths? What are they? Lazy? Stubborn? Defective? Well something must be wrong with them so let's fix them. And up springs an entire theory to explain just exactly the type of defect that inflicts a Blue Square. They aren't able to build an adequate representation in their minds of the world around them. They lack Theory Of Triangle.

By now you should be understanding the point of this little story. As stated in part 1 of this series, Theory Of Mind is the ability to create a functional representation of other people's cognition. But the key word is functional. On Flibnarz, perceiving blue squares and building an internal representation of monoliths from that perception is quite functional - that is until a particular type of perception and representation becomes pervasive and dominates their environment. And isn't it it exactly this difference in perception and representation that challenges autistic individuals when faced with a culture that is steeped in social communication to the point that it infuses EVERYTHING?

I am autistic and yet I have a Theory Of Mind. It is simply built on a different way pf perceiving and processing the world around me. It is DIFFERENT than the Theory Of Mind created by 99% of the world, but it is still a Theory Of Mind. As proof, I offer this essay. Why is it that I chose analogy and allegory to present this idea? Why blue squares and pink triangles? Why aliens and monoliths? Simply because my Theory Of Mind tells me that most people don't have any interest in the highly technical aspects of cognitive science. They really don't want to read about neurotransmitters, neural pathways, the amygdala, the pre-frontal cortex, or standard deviations from a normalized testing instrument designed to segment differentials in perception and processing. My Theory Of YOUR Mind is sufficient to frame this in language that is more likely to be read from beginning to end by a larger number of people.

So who's Theory Of Mind are we talking about here, anyway?

Next time, more about what a functional Theory Of Mind is and isn't.

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