No Theory of Mind?
I receive unsolicited emails from all sorts of newspapers and journals allowing me to read their articles for free, perhaps because of my daily blogging, but I'm merely guessing about that. Anyway, an email arrives at least once a week from the Catholic magazine Commonweal, and just this morning -- conveniently for me -- came a copy with an article by Edward T. Wheeler on "Moths and Eyes" (May 14, 2012), dealing with Tolstoy, sort of, but which included a brief passage on autism that caught my attention:
I happened to see an episode of Charlie Rose's show that focused on the brain, in particular the psychology, neurophysiology and the genetics of autism. In the course of the discussions, the researchers gathered around Rose's table agreed that the chief manifestation of autism is the inability of one so affected to create a mental map, a theory of mind, for those with whom they have relationships. Quite simply those with autism do not look in the eyes of another person and cannot anticipate the path or greater map along which a conversation might go. Hence they remain disconnected, isolated, not able to enter properly into dialogue.Does one need a "theory of mind" to interact with other persons? I can't even say that I have a theory of mind, in the sense of any rationally coherent understanding of what the mind is and how it relates to the brain, but I don't think those researchers meant a theory of mind in that sense. They must have meant that those with autism lack the understanding that others have minds. Autistics thus have no 'theory' that others have minds. A better word than theory is "recognition." The non-autistic of us, at some point in our development, come to recognize that others have minds. And we look into each other's eyes, unlike the autistic among us.
I've noticed that dogs look into our eyes and seem to understand us. Perhaps they also recognize that we have minds. This implies that dogs have minds, but I've never noticed whether dogs look into each other's eyes or not. They seem more focused on humans than on each other, and they not only look at what we point to when we point, they even know to look at what we look at when we look without pointing.
Cats sometimes look into our eyes, but they don't understand pointing or know to look where we look. At least, I've never noticed that they do, but perhaps a reader has experienced this? If so, this would likely be with highly unusual, individual cats, not with cats as a species.
What of other animals? My children have a pet hamster that lives all alone in its cage. I sometimes take it out and let it enjoy the mammalian comfort of being held, but it never stops to gaze into my eyes, nor would it ever look where I point or where I look, other than randomly.
See what I'm pointing at in today's random entry?