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Child's mind and Asperger's

  1. Apr 8, 2010 #1


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    The current issue of NYRB has a review by John Allen Paulos, of a book by Masha Gessen entitled Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. (Gessen's book is about the Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman and his solution of the Poincare Conjecture.) Speculating that Perelman may have Asperger's syndrome, Paulos notes "... seeing that a ball has been moved from one cup to another while someone has left the room, many people with Asperger's expect that on the person's return he will know that the ball is now in the other cup."

    This description reminded me a passage about child development. In her book The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik notes: "... suppose you show a child a candy box that turns out to be full of pencils. The children are very surprised when they see the pencils. But if you ask them what someone else will think is in the box three-year-olds confidently report that he will think there are pencils in there!"

    Has there been any scientific research on this seeming similarity between the minds of adults with Asperger's and those of children who are not old enough to have a working theory of the mind?
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  3. Apr 9, 2010 #2


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    I think the history is the other way round. Egocentricism was a classic Piagetian stage of child development. This spawned the theory of mind bandwagon in evopsych where it was reasoned this could be the critical "module" that made humans self-conscious (a bogus idea, but there you go). Then in turn, problems with the ToM module became (again bogus theorising) the defect responsible for autism. The mirror neuron "finding" got woven in as part of the story as well.

    So there is a ton of papers on the subject. But it just about marks the nadir of evopsych theorising.
  4. Apr 15, 2010 #3
    You'll have to fill me in here. Without knowing anything of the history of the concept of Theory of Mind I've often heard it asserted that Aspies lack it. To the extent examples are offered this idea has made sense. It seems to describe one of the deficits you notice in talking to them pretty well. What, generally speaking, has been discredited about the idea?
  5. Apr 15, 2010 #4


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    Hi Zooby, presuming you have a genuine interest and are not trolling (I've
    been getting a lot of that when I post on neuroscience here) the careful
    answer on ToM would be that it is a broad church.

    At one end, it is not controversial at all, just rather too clunky and
    introductory for my liking. At the other, it is an evopsych bandwagon that
    is the worse kind of neuro- and genetic reductionism.

    From my reading of autism spectrum disorders (which is extensive), the basic
    issue would be neurodevelopmental in my view. It would be to do with the way the brain
    wires itself up during the early years. And the defect would be some sort of
    general failure to create the basic neural habits that allow "smooth"
    perceptual integration. So it is not a high level failure, nor a module
    failure, but a general quite low level failure.

    Austist often describe a sensory confusion, a fragmentation, problems with
    selective attention, a whole collection of ways of saying they cannot just
    look at the world and take it all in, in that unthinkingly efficient and
    coherent way that a neurotypical person can.

    Aspergers would then be a milder version of this. And so the compromised
    perceptual integration would manifest only at a higher level. They could do
    the basics reasonably (sort the world into shapes and objects and
    backgrounds) but then start to struggle towards the end of the line, such as
    when having to interpret/anticipate very subtle perceptual facts like facial

    So what I am describing is a general, maybe cortex-wide, issue with building
    neural circuitry. Then mild issues would handicap only the most complex
    levels of perceptual integration, while serious issues would handicap
    integration all the way down to most basic levels.

    Now how much evidence is there for this interpretation? Not a lot of direct
    evidence as circuit level defects in living humans is not an easy hypothesis
    to research! To be frank, neuroscientists don't know how cortical columns
    are organised (though there is a bunch of reasonable theories) so they
    wouldn't know what to look for even if they could probe and slice with
    freedom. A fine-grain neural defect would be about the most difficult story
    to research (one reason why you don't hear about it).

    However, there is indirect evidence. There are the accounts of those with
    autism spectrum disorders, which are pretty vivid (I took time to read at
    least 20). And there is also plenty of basic neuroanatomical research on
    infant cortical development and neurocognitive research on early perceptual
    learning. Thousands of papers giving a general picture that makes a faulty
    wiring story entirely plausible (even if just plausible as speculation).

    Now the counter position would be ToM. Here the general theory is something
    suddenly made homo sapiens very different from homo neanderthalis and every
    other smart ape.

    I am with those who say it was the evolution of grammatical speech (and the
    language-scaffolded thinking that speech allows) which made the evolutionary
    discontinuity we can see so clearly in the paleoanthropological record. It
    is such a simple and straight-forward trick that it seems a no-brainer.
    Minimal genetic change would be required (mainly more top down control over
    vocal cords, descent of the larynx, small epigenetic stuff like that).

    But anyway, the other approach is that of cognitive science which has the
    expectation that the brain is a modular structure and some whole new module,
    or collection of modules, had to added in an abrupt genetic advance to allow
    for the full range of "innate" human faculties, such as higher emotions,
    recollective memory, creative imagination, and self-awareness in particular.

    There is a whole field of crank speculation (by quite respectable cognitive
    psychologists) making various suggestions about how evolution could have
    achieved a radical restructuring of the brain (despite the counter-evidence
    of endocasts) in the space of perhaps 50,000 years. The ToM seemed one of the simplest such stories.

    So it is this end of the spectrum I particularly object to - the framing of ToM as an evolutionarily critical module, of genetic origin.

    But if instead you say ToM is just a natural skill of social animals, like apes and especially humans; and that social intelligence is in fact the most challenging task for brains (the reason to have a big brain is to achieve higher levels of social intricacy); and that like all mental functions, the brain is really an integrated neural hierarchy rather than a collection of cognitive modules; and that human-level mental functioning is dependent on the extras that self-directed speech allow....well, talking about mind-reading, social intelligence and other skills as "theory of mind" activities is OK.

    And we could take a ToM failure - which after all is simply a failure on some familiar psychological tests developed in an infant mental development setting (a la Piaget) - as being a useful diagnostic tool for autistic spectrum disorders.

    Kids fail the task because their brains are not sufficiently developed (skills not yet mastered because they are high level and require a foundation of more basic skills to be mastered first).

    Autists would fail for much the same reason - unstable perceptual foundations would not allow the performing of the most sophisticated tasks brains evolved to perform, to do with social intelligence, facial expression reading, and generally putting yourself in another's shoes.
  6. Apr 16, 2010 #5

    I'm with you on "theory of mind" being not so much a whole discreet complex independent "module" per se, rather than just a convenient term for a sum of incremental improvements in an animal's capacity to predict the behaviour of other individuals (particularly in a social group).

    I'm also with you on grammar as the defining difference regarding humans.

    ..and I acknowledge the tendency to see people to get carried away with evolutionary psychology "just so" stories, often exceeding the bounds of what could justifiably be considered scientific.

    But why do you call "bogus" the idea of higher self-awareness (or self-consciousness) emerging from the application of an animal's "theory of mind" to itself instead of others (i.e., happening largely as a side-effect of selection for better ability to manipulate external social interactions)?
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2010
  7. Apr 16, 2010 #6
    So the controversy is not over whether Aspies lack Theory of Mind but over whether Theory of Mind is modular and whether it's what separated Homo Sapiens from its predecessors.

    My mind was tainted against Evolutionary Psychology by Ramachandran's assessment of it in Phantoms In The Brain, so I've not bothered to read anything more about it. His fake paper that was accepted in a peer reviewed EvPsych journal was pretty sweepingly damning, as far as I'm concerned.

    Anyway, not knowing anything of the history, I thought you were implying that the concept of Theory of Mind, itself, was an Evolutionary Psychology construct that had been discredited. I see now that's not what you're saying.
  8. Apr 16, 2010 #7


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    Because I think the evidence is too strong for the social origins of the habit of paying attention to a "self" in an introspective fashion.

    If it was a genetic change, then you would not have the counter evidence of deaf-mutes (without sign language) or wolf children, for example.

    We also have the historical evidence (the gradual development of the "self" as a social construct as expressed in the culture of Sumeria through to Greece through to modern times). Julian Jaynes, who wrote that famous crackpot (IMHO) bicameral mind book, got the transition right (even if the explanation wrong in looking for genetic reasons).

    Then there is the personal fact that I experienced my ability to introspect become far sharper once I realised it was a skill and not some innate faculty.

    But most of all, it was the speed of the change in homo sapiens history that suggest that all our enhanced mental abilities are the result of something actually new, rather than some incremental improvement of our biological hardware.

    I hate computational analogies, but it is quite true that language and the habits of thought that language scaffold, the memes that it can encode, are like moving from firmware to software in evolution. Language allows any social program to be written. And that was a kick like a phase change. It is the basis of the human sociocultural explosion.
  9. Apr 16, 2010 #8
    You think that the concept of self only originated 3000 years ago in Eurasia? (What about aboriginal Australians?)

    Also, what is it you think wolf children etc exemplify? (What about.. blindfolded kittens .. or children producing creoles from pidgins?)
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2010
  10. Apr 16, 2010 #9


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    No, some concept of self exists even in social apes. Then a socially constructed sense of self based on the encoding, concept sharpening, power of language would have begun to arise with the first development of language (circa 100kya). But the historical record suggesting a continued development of the social construction of an autonomous self is what could be used to argue that the concept of self is social and not genetic. It has been the product of continual cultural evolution rather than genetic.

    Wolf children show language is not an innate faculty, and that without language (and exposure to the habits of thought languages encode in societies), the human mind lacks other faculties we take for granted.

    Of course there is the complication of the critical period. So wolf children couldn't be taught to speak in later childhood. (What you meant by blindfolded kittens I presume).

    Creoles show that brains are very prepared for language and will generalise rules from scanty experience. So of course genetics are important and the mind is not a blank slate. But on the other hand, the social side of the equation is just as important. Language does not come genetically wired in. And the critical point here, neither do the other homo sapien cognitive functions of self-awareness, recollective memory, higher emotion, creative imagination.
  11. Apr 16, 2010 #10
    I think creoles show that grammar is genetically wired in: if children are exposed to only a grammarless pidgin, they transform it into a full language, without being instructed how to do so. (Likewise, children in deaf-mute families will produce grammar even if their parents supply none.)

    If an isolated feral-child (who failed to aquire, what, ASL nor Mandarin) proves language is not innate, than a kitten blind-folded in its critical period proves that vision is not an innate faculty for cats. Do you see?

    In the absence of any dependable studies in which multiple infants are raised together in total isolation from culture, we have to fall back on different types of evidence as to whether language capacity (as opposed to any particular language) may be hard-wired or just a cultural application of general cognitive abilities. Such as the fact that children do have different critical periods specific to learning particular elements of language (rather than general learning). Or disorders that affect general cognitive ability but spare linguistic aptitude and vice versa. Hasn't it even been shown that deliberate adult language acquisition involves a separate brain region from normal (and can the same be said of whether we learn, say, geography as children or as adults)?
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2010
  12. Apr 16, 2010 #11


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    I don't disagree, except that "genetically wired" is too strong a term. Developmentally inevitable given correctly patterned interaction might be better. Though the necessary social interaction could be very minimal.

    But what do you mean by "children in deaf-mute families"? Do you mean hearing children with signing parents? What did you have in mind here (and references would be helpful)?

    Are we talking about grammatical speech here, or the "human faculties" that speech allows?

    I would agree that language is clearly more genetic, more innate, than these.

    Social intelligence also has strong genetic/innate/biological underpinnings.

    So what we are really talking about here is not the old question - nature vs nurture - but more sophisticated neurodevelopmental and sociocultural models of human mental abilities.

    The kitten example proves that vision is indeed not innate, but is learnt. Experience of the world is necessary to constrain the development of the cortical circuitry.

    But equally, the development of the circuitry is subtly underpin by genetics. So for example (as nicely modelled in the neural net approaches of Jeffery Elman's Rethinking Innateness), genetic timing of neurogenesis may stage neural learning so that foundations of coarse-grained responses are laid down first, paving the way for the learning of finer-tuned responses as the next step. A hierarchicly organised developmental process where genes regulate timing, and environment provides the necessary patterning.

    In fact, exactly the kind of neuro-defect that we would expect to finger when looking at autism spectrum disorders.

    I think you are making this a false either/or debate. Either language (and human abilities) are hard-wired, or they are culturally learnt. Clearly there is an intricate mix of constuction and constraint; an interaction of nature and nurture, genetic and social evolution.
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2010
  13. Apr 16, 2010 #12
    If you that is how you use "innate" and "learnt", they don't seem like terribly helpful distinctions to communicate.
  14. Apr 17, 2010 #13


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    I don't know what you are talking about then. The kitten experiment is classic evidence that vision depends on experience to develop. What other interpretation is there?
  15. Jun 19, 2010 #14
    If one is skeptical about a theory of mind, why not do what Galileo did? He would come up with experiments to test ideas. Would you agree although you can't prove something for sure, you can use empirical falsification and in the end go with the best explanation?

    Before I propose some falsification tests, some context for why many bring up the theory of mind, those who work with those with autism say that they have problems with social aspects of life to the point it's clinical. Even those with high functioning autism are that way. Special Ed teachers say the same thing.

    So some have proposed that part of it may be because those with autism have trouble reading other people, or in an operational definitions standpoint "trouble predicting the behavior of another human organism". Along these lines, let's say your with a budy watching TV. He gets up to answer the door but leaves his cell phone in his jacket on the couch. You then take out his cell phone and hide it in a desk across the room thinking it will be funny. When your bud gets back, where is he going to look for his cell phone? Well, most four year old children who are normal or have Down's Syndrome are able to figure it out, but most with autism at this age would say he would look in the desk rather than jacket. This is one way researchers tried to make theory of mind falsifiable:


    Then some may suggest those with autism had trouble because they overanalyze. However a later study did some controlling for that by giving them picture sequencing tasks that test the ability to figure out cause-effect and describing things, and those with autism didn't do bad on those but just the predicting intentions part as seen below:


    Now to the point of my post, I'm curious if we could test this further, since Albert Einstein/Galileo were into experiments. The first graph shows most with high functioning autism failed while most who were normal/DS didn't. However, looking at the pattern in the graph you'll notice some passed while some normal didn't. I'm curious if the failure to "predict other's verbal and regular behavior" is a side effect of having autism rather than the problem, or if it's a major part of the problem? I wonder if theory of mind could be further "tested" by finding out if those with autism who pass are a lot less severe than those who don't pass? If the high functioning autism children who pass are just as severe, then I would think that would falsify the theory of mind, however if they're a lot less severe then there would be what the Philosopher of Science Karl Popper calls collaboration with an explanation.
  16. Jun 20, 2010 #15
    I was re-reading the chapter on Temple Grandin in Oliver Sack's An Anthropologist On Mars last week and he relates the history of the "Theory Of Mind" hypothesis. It was the suggestion of Beate Hermelin and Neil O'conner, made in the 1970's, to sum up what seemed to me missing that caused the triad of autistic impairments: impairment of social interaction with others, impairment of verbal and non-verbal communication, impairment of play and imaginary activities. In a sense, if you dislike it as a summary cause, you might simply substitute a better one, or avoid a summary altogether, because the triad of impairments, itself, remains intact.
  17. Jun 20, 2010 #16


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    What's interesting to me is that I've met Temple Grandin in person. She gave a lecture to my department when I was in grad school (she's a well-known animal behaviorist). If she had not told us she was autistic, I would have never guessed it. Nothing about her social interactions seemed abnormal to me in any way. Though, she explains that this is also a learned behavior for her, not something that comes naturally.

    I also have a friend with two autistic children who are now teenagers (one is somewhat high functioning, and one very low functioning), and another friend with a child with asperger's who is still very young (elementary school). I also have a high school acquaintance, who I've run into a few times as adults, who has asperger's.

    The common feature that is most overtly noticeable in all of them is the inability to disregard or "filter out" the minor sensory stimuli that most of us ignore all the time. An example is my friend's teenaged daughter who is pubertal and growing body hair. While most women choose to shave their legs for aesthetic reasons, and couldn't be bothered as often in winter when we're wearing pants and nobody will see the stubble, her daughter just can't ignore it and will scratch at her legs unless they are shaved. My other friend with the Asperger daughter...his daughter will pretty much obsess on a subject for weeks at a time. It's sort of like the polar opposite of ADHD. Once a new topic catches her interest, she just won't let it go until she's exhausted every source she can get to learn about it.

    Temple Grandin reported similar experiences, and suggests this is why she is so good at perceiving animal behavior, because the little things that we don't notice, but will startle an animal are the same things that catch her attention. For example, a little piece of plastic stuck on a fence and fluttering in the breeze is something most of us would just walk on past. She can't. She will see it and focus on it, and just can't move on until it's removed. And, as anyone who's ever ridden horses knows, it's that little thing we don't notice that's also likely to spook a horse.

    So, I would argue it goes beyond what the OP is discussing. While a child might be surprised by a candy box filled with pencils, I would predict that someone with asperger's or high functioning autism would see that and become obsessed with it, that the pencils were in the wrong place. And, they might also be the first to notice it. Just the tiniest thing out of its usual place is something they will notice while other children might need to have it pointed out to them.
  18. Jun 21, 2010 #17
    The OP isn't asserting that Asperger's is limited to this error in judgment, though. He's just mentioning this particular thing to ask if anyone knows of comparisons made between adult Aspies and normal children who go through a period of making the same error.

    My post was also not intended to sum Asperger's/Autism up. I was just pointing out that no one has to get too bent out of shape trying to prove or disprove it all boils down to "theory of mind' because that was a 'soft' suggestion to begin with on the part of the people who originated it; a hypothesis at best, a mere descriptive at least. Saying they all seem to lack "theory of mind" is simply a summary description, not the statement of a root cause.
  19. Jun 21, 2010 #18


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    Well focusing on these as symptoms certainly led to a general feeling that a finger had been pointed at a root cause, leading people to search for a ToM module or pathway in the brain that could be defective.

    If brain processing is in fact distributed and hierarchical, rather than modular or sequential, then it always makes more sense when looking at any dysfunction to ask about the lowest level at which symptoms present themselves. Things start to go wrong from the bottom, then flow through to have consequences at the highest levels.

    Which is why a symptom like a failure to filter (a failure to anticipate and thus suppress the perceptually irrelevant) would seem ultimately more telling than the problems with social skills.
  20. Jun 21, 2010 #19
    Going by that you will misjudge a lot of poeple, in my experience the most noticeable is how they react in social situations they aren't prepared for and how awkwardly they handle jokes. Then other small things to look for is that they often have an odd walking style, in fact a strange way to move their body in general and most use their voice in an slightly awkward way. If you have been around one for a while you should notice that their speech patterns are limited, often repeating sentences they have used before etc instead of expressing themselves fluidly.

    The hyper attention only effects a few things which they have chosen to focus on, it is common for them to be imbalanced being obsessed with a few things and ignoring the rest but this is the easiest part for them to train away so you wont notice this in well adapted Aspergers. But the points I mentioned above are still there. Also just having one of them or so is normal but Aspergers have most of those.
  21. Jun 21, 2010 #20
    Context for where I'm coming from, personally I think theory of mind makes a lot of sense for the social skills part, and there are a lot of studies that strongly suggest you can't blame the social effects on executive dysfunction (which many try to blame autism on that at first).

    Just like many physicists come up with experiments to test things, that's how I feel about this. If those high functioning autistic individuals who passed that test were much less severe than those who didn't (and opposite for the Down Syndrome/normal children who passed), then although it wouldn't prove it would at least mean the ToM explanation is consistent with the evidence so far. However, if they're no less severe, then I would say that's evidence against. Einstein came up with experiments to better understand things, so that's context for why I'm curious about experiments.
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