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).
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.
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.