Theory of Mind

This amazing bit today from Susanne Antonetta’s A Mind Apart:

One persistent theory of autism—I would call it a bias—holds that autistics have no “theory of mind,” defined as the ability to recognize or infer the mental life of another person.  No theory of mind, the thinking goes, leads to a lack of empathy.  Many clinicians still believe this.

Autistics argue they may develop a theory of mind later than neurotypicals, but the compensation for this later development is a theory of mind that’s far more sophisticated, that recognizes the uniqueness of each individual’s mental life.

Neurotypical theory of mind tends to infer the mental state of others by following the rules of one’s own.  As one clinician puts it, the autistic may rely on a not-like-me awareness of the other, rather than a like-me awareness.  A contributor to the Institute for the Neurological Typical addresses theory of mind this way:  the neurotypical theory of mind is that everyone thinks like me, while the neuroatypical theory would be that everyone’s mind is “vastly and mysteriously” different from my own.

“Have you ever noticed that ‘normal’ people cannot think about the possibility that each person might live in a separate world?” he asks.

I have not polled normal people to see whether or not they can think this.  I know it has been clear to me since childhood, when each set of eyes that passed me, including those of my closest family, seemed like windows in a jetliner taking off, never clearly visible and becoming invisible in no time at all.

What this section made me realize is that early in my life I held a neurotypical theory of mind, in that I believed everyone thought and felt the same way I did.  Now my theory of mind is firmly neuroatypical.  I know no one thinks like I do.  Even other folks with bipolar disorder have very different universes swirling in the vastness of their minds.  We do manage to enter each others’ orbits on occasion, but I’ll never again make the mistake of assuming anyone else populates my planets.

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Fiddle gal
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 21:39:24

    Thanks for the insight. So what if we ALL think differently. What is normal anyway, how do we really know what actually goes on in an others mind? We can talk about it, but isn’t it possible that what we say is perceived differently. I have to think about this. Interesting!


    • Sandy Sue
      Jul 03, 2012 @ 12:42:44

      I believe everyone has their own perceptions, filters, etc. but what’s new for me is considering the actual process of thought and brain organization to be different in folks with autism, bipolar disorder, and other neuroatypicals. And then my next questions is what else is different?


  2. dalsher
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 22:34:39

    There you go – assuming that we are thinking.


  3. docrob50
    Jul 03, 2012 @ 08:56:41

    sorta brings a whole new dimension to our use and understanding of Astrology too!
    Informative post.


  4. pegoleg
    Jul 03, 2012 @ 11:07:52

    I love the jetliner analogy. I’m usually so wrapped up in my own stuff I don’t think of others in that way, but for me the reminder comes on the highway. Sometimes I’ll look at all the cars whizzing by and it strikes me, forcibly, that each one of those people is the center of their OWN universe. With friends, concerns, experiences that have nothing to do with me, yet are just as important, at least to them.

    Kinda blows my mind, really.


  5. Dee Ready
    Jul 04, 2012 @ 12:11:08

    Dear Sandy, I still have a neurotypical frame of reference in that I’m always surprised when people think differently or act differently from myself. The realization comes quickly now and I don’t fight against the goad any longer. I try to keep from judging others when I discover that their way of thinking is different from mine, but often I remain judgmental when it comes to politics! Peace.


  6. docrob50
    Jul 04, 2012 @ 12:40:24

    Ok, theory of mind. On the one hand I am fascinated by all the clever and imaginative ways we go about trying to understand and study ourselves. Concepts such as neurotypical and neuroatypical and theory of mind feel like another re-shuffling of ideas and observations made by many awake people – just re-stated in 21st century lingo.

    The article was written as an attempt to explain – to define if you will – autistic behavior. To understand it’s differences from non-autistic behavior i.e., normalcy, which is culturally defined. One of the contributors to the studies asks:

    “Have you ever noticed that ‘normal’ people cannot think about the possibility that each person might live in a separate world?”

    Sorry but I gotta think this guy’s never been in love…….I don’t think people think about that possibility too much cause I don’t think most people believe and live as though we were all interdependent and connected in the first place. So the question he poses is the same as asking the fish about the condition of its water.

    Sandy-Sue I must confess to you that I have no clue what the astrology reference was too – either. Except that last line of yours about how we manage to enter each others orbits. Relationships = planetary influences. Some friends have wide orbits and others are very near by and strong…….and I’m whistling in the dark here…..
    errr carry on


    • Sandy Sue
      Jul 04, 2012 @ 20:08:06

      Rob, you make me laugh out loud.
      I agree that there’s a lot of navel gazing going on in this book—more than even I can stand sometimes.
      So glad I wobbled into your orbit!


  7. Kathryn McCullough
    Jul 04, 2012 @ 20:38:33

    So sorry to have been extra-absent from your planet this week. Tomorrow’s post should explain my absence. I’ve missed reaching into your orbit, dear Sandy. Happy 4th, my friend.



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