We humans are said to have intuition that we can easily decode feelings of another person. It isn’t in the sense that we guess what’s inside of a person’s head but rather we can understand what the other person is thinking through observation of body language, gesture, eye contact and tone of voice as well as language use. These are what we call “reading between the lines” or in other words non-verbal communication (or cues). We, especially most women can easily, decode non-verbal cues while most straight men can decode but not as intuitively as women do (hence men can’t read women’s minds especially if she’s not in the mood??). When a person has good grasp of looking into human’s minds by just observing non-verbal cues, he or she is said to have good people skills and high empathy. And that’s what needed in order to have a good social life and to carry on with life itself.
This process is called the Theory of Mind.
But what about mind blindness? Does that mean that the mind can go blind?
A person is said to have mind blindness if he or she fails to understand the mental states of another person especially if he or she cannot interpret non-verbal cues. Just like in the drawing above.
To explain these further let’s truly define theory of mind and mind blindness.
What is theory of mind?
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. This means that you as a person can “read” what another person thinks or feels through observation of non-verbal communication like body language and figures of speech. A person who has theory of mind can often develop empathy thus become good at people skills.
Most people (neurotypical) have theory of mind since early chidhood, hence can develop good social skills at a young age. However, people who have autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, non-verbal disorder and schizophrenia lack theory of mind, meaning they can’t read other people, making socialization difficult for them – a hallmark sign of these disorders.
How is theory of mind developed?
Theory of mind isn’t something that develops overnight. It usually begins in infancy or early childhood where they learn the early skills that they’ll need to develop their theory of mind later on. These skills include the ability to:
▪ pay attention to people and copy them
▪ recognize others’ emotions and use words to express them (“happy”, “sad”, “mad”)
▪ know that they are different from other people and have different likes/dislikes from others
▪ know that people act according to the things they want
understand the causes and consequences of emotions (If I throw my toy, Mom will be mad)
▪ pretend to be someone else (like a doctor or a cashier) when they play
When they reach the ages 4-5 they really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges. Children develop theory of mind skills in the following order:
▪ Understanding “wanting” – Different people want different things, and to get what they want, people act in different ways.
▪ Understanding “thinking” – Different people have different, but potentially true, beliefs about the same thing. People’s actions are based on what they think is going to happen.
▪ Understanding that “seeing leads to knowing” – If you haven’t seen something, you don’t necessarily know about it (like the Dad in the example above on the telephone). If someone hasn’t seen something, they will need extra information to understand.
▪ Understanding “false beliefs” – Sometimes people believe things that are not true, and they act according to their beliefs, not according to what is really true.
▪ Understanding “hidden feelings” – People can feel a different emotion from the one they display.
When one child finally masters these tasks above, socialization will be easier for her, thus practicing her “theory of mind skills” at home, school and play until she has more than enough theory of mind to deal with people and life in general.
What if a child has no theory of mind?
Like stated above , not all children have developed theory of mind especially if a child has autism or a learning disability. This makes them look like antisocial or without empathy leaving them socially isolated. This is what we call mind blindness.
What is mind blindness?
Mind blindness is a cognitive disorder where an individual is unable to attribute mental states to the self and other. As a result of this disorder the individual may be unaware of others’ mental states, or incapable in attributing beliefs and desires to others. This means that a certain individual with mind blindness has little to no knowledge and understanding of oneself’s emotions as well as the emotions of others ie you cannot comprehend why you best friend cries over a movie character that has died towards the end of the story. Mind blindness is said to be common in autism spectrum disorders like the classic autism and Asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and even depression, dementia and normal aging (that’s why your grandpa is grumpy sometimes).
Mind-blindness is a state where the ToM has not been developed or lost in an individual. The ToM is implicit in neurotypical individuals. This enables one to make automatic interpretations of events taking into consideration the mental states of people, their desires and beliefs. Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen says that an individual lacking a ToM would perceive the world in a confusing and frightening manner; leading to a withdrawal from society.
An alternative to the ToM deficit is that of impairment to read more complex emotions of people (sarcasm, figures of speech). Uta Frith concluded that the processing of complex cognitive emotions is impaired compared to simpler emotions.
In short if you have mind blindness, you are dumb in recognizing and processing emotions of yourself and others, leaving you clueless on how to deal with other people. You will actually depend more on your logical mind to comprehend the world around you. As in my experience before when I was younger, I think like a robot or computer meaning I only have black and white, yes or no thinking. The result is I cannot understand what the other person says, thinks or feels like people are speaking a different language. This caused me to be socially isolated.
Let’s give some examples of situations where mind blindness is present:
Imagine that your friend cried over her dead cat. Of course for most of us that would be a very sad and horrible feeling when you lost your beloved pet knowing that she will never live again. But if you have mind blindness you can’t understand her emotions of grief over the death of her cat. You just might think it’s already dead and cannot come back. You either just ignore her feelings or even you can say why should you cry over a died living thing?
Here’s another situation. You are given by your date a bunch of roses. For most girls it’s really sweet and appropriate to be given flowers by a date to express his admiration and affection for you. But if you have mind blindness you may say why I was given dead plants?
Too bad. When you have mind blindness you do think very literally like a computer which just thinks only a yes/no command and if no it is error. No emotion. No gray areas. This makes a person with mind blindness look either aloof, antisocial or even rude to other people leading him to be socially isolated without ever knowing why. He’s totally clueless how to read people ‘intuitively’ without becoming ‘dry.’
What causes mind blindness?
Mind blindness is said to be caused by deficits in three regions of the brain where ToM is utilized:
The anterior paracingulate cortex is the key region of mentalizing. This cortex is associated with the medial frontal cortex where activation is associated with the mentalization of states.
The superior temporal sulcus and the temporal poles aid in the activation of the regions that are associated with the ToM. The superior temporal sulcus is involved in the processing of behavioural information while the temporal poles are involved in the retrieval of personal experiences. The temporal poles provide personal experiences for mentalization such as facial recognition, emotional memory and familiar voices.
The amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex also are a part of the ToM. It is in involved in the interpretation of behaviour which plays an important role in social cognition and therefore contributes to the theory of the mind.
Executive function also plays a role in ToM where it includes skills such as organizing, planning, sustaining attention, and inhibiting inappropriate responses.
Huh? Where in the brain they are?
A lot of regions in the brain are involved in ToM but mostly they are found in the frontal and temporal lobes of the cerebrum (the biggest part of the brain). The amygdala is not part of the cerebrum but it is part of the making of ToM and is within the temporal lobes as well.
The anterior paracingulate cortex is located above the anterior corpus callosum (the cingulate gyrus is the red area below while the corpus callosum is the white area below the gyrus) near the frontal lobe.
The superior temporal sulcus is in the middle portion of the brain on the temporal lobe while the temporal poles are at the ends of the temporal lobe. (Below images courtesy of Wikipedia)
The amygdala is a tiny thing under the frontal lobe and under the corpus callosum.
The orbitofrontal cortex is located in the most inferior part of the frontal lobe.
Damage or underdevelopment to these areas can cause mind blindness.
How is mind blindness tested?
When a child does not developed normally like having social deficits including no eye contact and non-responsiveness tests are given to rule out a developmental disability or deafness. If she has a suspected developmental disability psychological tests are given of which the most famous is the Sally-Ann(e) test.
The image above asks where will Sally look for the ball. To be able to pass this test, the child must answer that Sally will look for the basket and not in the box. Below is the more detailed Sally-Ann(e) test including the answers:
If the child has a wrong answer she is now confirmed with mind blindness, a hallmark sign of autism disorder.
It is very important therefore to assess whether a child has developed ToM or not. This is to assess if her brain is developing typically or not. This is to ensure that proper care is utilized to the child and develop specific plans of therapy or lesson plan to the child whether with ToM or with mind blindness.
If someone is mind blind, how is it managed?
As soon as mind blindness is confirmed (usually with the diagnosis of autism/Asperger’s) , affected kids and teens can learn to compensate for mindblindness and alexithymia with the parent’s help and a lifetime of constant counseling by therapists.
To help a mind blind child (or teen ot adult) parents and/or therapists must understand that their Aspergers kids must be taught to use logic to make sense of the world and the people in it, one personal situation at a time. This is to compensate for the child’s lack of social intelligence and to take advantage of his strength in his logical mind to be taught social skills and management of emotions literally as if they are academic subjects.
My Aspergers Child website has general tips of teaching ToM to people with mind blindness:
1. Every human behavior has a reason behind it, even if I don’t see it.
2. Most people usually talk about the things they want, and openly say what they believe.
3. Some people are so messed up that it is just not possible to figure them out. Know when to give up.
4. When somebody’s behavior flies in the face of logic, concentrate on that person’s feelings.
5. Women talk more than men and focus on feelings more.
These are the more general tips. For more specific tips click on their article page here.
Theory of mind is an important tool for us in order to deal with the world. It enables us to navigate the social world, assess and recongnize our own feelings as well as the feelings and thinking of other people, and most of all enable us to cooperate with people as if they are our own family. However some people in neurodiversity lack ToM and therefore have mind blindness which can adversely affect their dealing with themselves as well as other people which could bring bad results such as social isolation and depression. It is therefore important that when a child shows lack of interest in the world to be assessed right away for mind blindness and help teach theory of mind through years of therapy and love and support. With enough support neurodiverse people can navigate the world more easily.
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