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My theory on "theory of mind"

By Daniel · Mar 14, 2013 · ·
  1. One difference I've noticed in how neurotypicals write about Asperger's compared to how Aspies write about it--I've not yet come across an Aspie describing themself as not having a "theory of mind".

    I have a different take on it than what the psychologists say. I don't think humans come equipped with a "theory of mind", per se. Those who are able to grasp the perspectives of those different from them do so because they become exposed to other perspectives and learn from the experience--if they are open to them.

    I think this applies to Aspies and NTs alike. Some people are more able to be open and to evolve--Aspies and NTs alike. It's just harder for Aspies, and here's why.

    I take my explanation for what I see here from Genesis 1. The overarching theme of Genesis 1, the whole "seven days" business, is a rundown of the fundamentals of existence, the stuff about the world that is cyclical, eternal, and basic about humans and their world. The story of Creation is the story of when our minds started using stories to make sense of things, and these are the original stories. (Genesis 2 is where people started making up stories and got lost in the great mist.)

    Which brings me to this passage--"God created Man in his own image." In this context, it means that a person can look at another person and know that person is someone who is human like him or her.

    Aspies don't have this luxury. Aspies, in order to get along, have to assume that NO ONE is like them and they are like no one else (unless they get lucky).

    The NT "theory of mind" is little more than the knowledge that your fellow NT is accurately readable based on surface indicators of how that person fits into their culture. It's little more than the ability to read someone's age, attractiveness, clothing, voice and presence, and know pretty much exactly what you're getting.

    NTs are generally able to correctly assume that a fellow NT is doing things because it is expected of them to do so (and not by anyone in particular, usually). When this type of NT encounters anyone who doesn't fit the script in a way that works for them--Aspie or not--they don't get it!

    My experience of this--if I am able to detect that an NT is does things in his/her life because "it's what you do", that's a turn-off to me. As an Aspie, I would have to do an insane amount of research to be able to understand that person's perspective enough to be able to converse with them on their level. I'm too busy trying to be exceptional to care about what it's like to try to be the rule. Give me NTs who can open up and be honest, and I'll gladly converse with them.

    What's more evolved? Being a sovereign individual, or a puppet of the culture?
    Aspergirl4hire and Dan Metevier like this.


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  1. Daniel
    Wow... looked back at this blog post I wrote a year-and-a-half ago, and man, have I ever mellowed out since then! Life dealt me a bunch of new cards, and I've discarded a whole lot of the old ones that had been in my hand for a long time. Especially the "me vs. them" card.

    "Can I trust you?" "Are you going to kill me (literally or figuratively)?" "Do I need to protect myself from you?" "When will you betray me?" "I know you will eventually, it's just a matter of time."

    My therapist told me something that helped me grow--the only person I can and need to trust is myself. I've done a lot of work to shed fears about people wounding my pride--by shedding the pride!

    "These questions and many like them lurk in the deep recesses of the NT mind. Is that so different from the Aspie mind (and vice versa)?"

    Agreed... Not at all!

    "I may be wrong (and I hope you correct me if I am) but the Aspie mind seems to be much like the NT mind, just without all the (unnecessary?) window dressing."

    I think this touches on what I wanted to express with this post, and my opinion on Baron-Cohen's notion of "Theory of Mind". That if we're going to define the broad differences that makes Aspies seem like they have something in common that makes them distinct from non-Aspies or NTs, we're better off formulating the definition some other way. I recently listened to to a radio interview with John Gray, author of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus". It would be greatly offensive if we said that the norm is to offer a practical solution when someone talks about their problems, and that just listening and being supportive means that women have an impairment in problem-solving. I think perspective-taking is a learned skill.

    Karla Fisher has prepared an excellent critique of ToM here: ASDCulture - Theory of Mind my Ass

    This being said... I recently went to an Asperger's meetup where confusion occurred because of a misunderstanding of what someone "would do" given the circumstances. So this particular Aspie wasn't great at perspective-taking... My ultimate point is that it's not fair to say that NTs are all that great at it to the point where it's the "norm".
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  2. Dan Metevier
    Spinning Compass said: "What would happen if we had a culture in which there were no outsiders?"

    What a beautiful way to see the world and live in it. It seems to me (I guess you'd call me an NT), the human condition contains a constant tension between being who you are (assuming you know who that is) and being who "they" want you to be (in order to survive, get along). This is certainly true in the NT world (if it's OK to call it that) and appears to be extremely true in the Aspie world (although it's all just one world in my view). I'm just Dan and you're just Spinning Compass (or whomever) and why can't that just be OK? I guess another part of the human condition is the fear factor, or what a friend of mine calls "terror management." When we left the Garden of Eden, we were given the gift/curse of fear. And here we are. "Can I trust you?" "Are you going to kill me (literally or figuratively)?" "Do I need to protect myself from you?" "When will you betray me?" "I know you will eventually, it's just a matter of time." These questions and many like them lurk in the deep recesses of the NT mind. Is that so different from the Aspie mind (and vice versa)? I may be wrong (and I hope you correct me if I am) but the Aspie mind seems to be much like the NT mind, just without all the (unnecessary?) window dressing. I hope I didn't offend anyone with what I've said.

    Anyway, I love this line of discussion and appreciate what you all have to say about it. Thanks!
      Daniel likes this.
  3. Ste11aeres
    Umm, i can't think of a single culture that didn't divide the world into "us and them". WHo exactly the "us" is, and who is the "them" does vary. But there is always those two groups.
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  4. Daniel
    I think pretty much all the cultures went through the same pattern, where they developed a mental awareness, an ability to conceptualize and use language that was distinct to humans. I like the metaphor of we humans using our minds to create an image of other humans that is like ourselves. I think what I'm getting at about Genesis is that "theory of mind" is more like "theory by projection".

    A culture is basically an "us", I guess! My parents came from different sides of the world, so I never really got to associate with any group, really.

    I must admit I am biased against people who like to "hide" in group identity. I like groups for the greater good that can be achieved when people get together, but I don't like groups for their "safety in numbers" quality. I like what Bill Hicks said about patriotism--you're just getting excited over "where your parents f***ed."

    A culture with no outsiders...like where we realize that the number in which there is truly safety is ONE -- i.e. we are one big seven-billion headed beast, and we're all in this together!
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  5. Daniel
    I'm pretty new to identifying as an Aspie, so I've still got a lot of old behaviour, thought patterns and feelings kicking around! Understanding now that I really am different has helped a lot.

    I don't really differentiate between Aspies and NTs as much as I differentiate between myself and everyone else!
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  6. Spinning Compass
    I am wondering . . . you brought up Genesis 1 + 2 . . . whether some of the problems you speak of regarding culture and fitting in are tied in somehow with Western Judeo-Christian-Islamic teachings which basically divide the world into "us and them" so to speak. Although I understand that Asian cultures also stress conformity.

    What would happen if we had a culture in which there were no outsiders?
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  7. King_Oni
    While I wouldn't want to advocate a big divide and make NT's look bad (or as "the enemy") I think it's good to understand that your neurological wiring is different... it's what sets someone with our wiring of from neurotypicals as such.

    Holding myself up to anyones standards is something I stopped doing a long time ago. I don't differentiate between aspies and NT people even... I'll do things my way, since that's how it works best for me.

    Perhaps the entire notion of peer pressure never stuck to me cause I always was an outsider cause of preferences in my teen years already.
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  8. Daniel
    It occurs to me now that I've been making myself miserable lately by holding myself up to NT standards. That's probably why I wrote this! I've feeling much better today. As much as I have to deal with them and avoid pissing them off, I actually can do it a lot of the time. I just get tired of "peer pressure"!
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  9. Daniel
    Yes, we are. So what I'm hoping will be evolved away will be the top-down types of social pressure, the institutions for which people betray their own well-being. Like staying in an abusive marriage because you made a vow to stay forever, or neglecting your family because you need to work to make a ****-ton of money because that's how you measure your self-worth. I'm happy to see stuff like that fall by the wayside. I prefer to have social interactions in which people are embraced for their differences.

    I'm fortunate to have avoided the "professional" side of Asperger's. I've never had to deal with a therapist, for example, though I'm actually interested in talking to one. But in general, I find the whole psych industry to be a funny duck. I feel like it's still part of the Genesis 2+ world, where they believe that the "story" determines what exists and what doesn't, and that story is called the "DSM".

    To those who are experienced with the system and know more about it than I do, I must admit that your experience with it and resulting opinions probably mean more than mine!
      Dan Metevier likes this.
  10. King_Oni
    From an evolutionairy standpoint the human race is a social animal (or so I've heard).

    But I totally understand where you're coming from; I think aspies are more aware of their behaviour as well. Quite often it's either because they are being called out on their weird behaviour or because they feel they're weird and ostracized (technically being called out on their behaviour non-verbally). This leads to more reflection to our behaviour, and how we deal with things.

    If anything I've learned that making people aware of their (supposedly) wrong behaviour is one of the worst things to do. It makes people want to try harder to not be wrong (which I guess is something human, since you want to get along with everyone to some degree), but there's only so much you can do and probably only so much a brain can process.

    It's something I touched on a while ago in a blog of mine when I discussed employment issues. I feel that fitting in and behaving like everyone else, for some of us, is like an extra task that apparently is assumed to be a freebie for any employer. I have a hard time defining what being polite is purely based on rules. For a lot of people (assumingly NT's) that's a no-brainer, for me... I need guidelines and rules with that. Oh, and just thinking for example at the golden arches... y'know, one of worlds biggest fastfood storechains "smiles are free". I already have a hard time putting up a sincere smile in my personal life (go go aspie stare); I'm not saying one couldn't try really hard (and probably achieve it), but I'm inclined to say that this makes a job like that more than a 100% effort, while my pay will be the same as anyone who does it effortlessly.

    Also; what you're saying about NT's and Aspies in that NT's are somewhat alike and can assume everyone is "the same", whereas aspies actually need to assume they're "different". Have you ever wondered how this goes on with research, therapists and tests they make.

    Pretty much any psychological test is aimed and made by and for the NT benchmark. Therapy most of the time is aimed towards people whom they assume to be NT. If you're an aspie with real aspie problems that problem becomes n-times more complex for most support. There's no expertise on that. Group therapy might work for NT's but I have my doubts if this work for anyone who suffers from any form of social anxiety due to being on the spectrum for example. I experience my depression different and most likely I can attribute part of it to my condition and has little to do with a chemical imbalance like a lot of depression is being perceived as. And the list goes on.
      Dan Metevier likes this.