New theory suggests autism may not be tied to mindblindness

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03 Sep 2020, 7:20 am

Medical Press

Tracking the extent to which other people think differently from yourself appears to be more relevant than understanding someone else's thoughts per se. Neuroscientists at Ghent University and the University of New South Wales (Sydney) came to this conclusion.

Through a systematic review and critical analysis of more than 50 neurological imaging studies, they found that one of the main areas of the brain we use to understand others is active in detecting differences between what you think and what others think. In the past, this brain area was believed to be mainly active in understanding what others think. They call their new theory of human social cognition "relational mentalizing."

Dr. Eliane Deschrijver says, "No two people ever see or experience the same events in exactly the same light. In fact, in any conversation, minor differences in thinking happen all the time: Someone may be telling you about a situation with their boss, while you were actually thinking of changing the topic to your cat. If one isn't on the same page with another person, the brain may need to process this, and then determine whether to rephrase one's own thoughts or focus onthe other's. It can crucially determine the flow of any social interaction."

The brain region that according to the researchers is responsible for detecting differences between your understanding of others' thoughts and what you think yourself is called the temporoparietal junction. This brain region is often less active in people on the autism spectrum.

After re-assessing other findings from 35 years of Theory of Mind research in autism, the researchers argued that the brain in people on the spectrum may be able to grasp what others think, but then may have a harder time processing the degree to which others think differently from themselves.

Dr. Deschrijver says, "If they notice another person trying to steer away the conversation towards an own interest, for instance, individuals on the spectrum may not entirely process a mismatch in thinking as a cue to stop talking. This can lead them to overshare their own thoughts. The opposite may happen, too: Understanding the other's different thoughts may keep an individual on the spectrum from verbalizing their own thoughts, even if that were socially expected. Differences in engaging in back-and-forth conversation are thought to lie at the heart of the autism spectrum."

Out with Theory of Mind?
The new theory also changes our understanding of complex social interactions such as lie detection, moral judgments, and the understanding of sarcasm and humor. Recognizing that a person is sarcastic, for instance, when they call the weather "beautiful!" while it is raining, may well depend on detecting a mismatch between this person's statement and one's own understanding of the world. If "mindreading" is less important than we thought, the "relational mentalizing" theory spawns many new research questions.

The article was published in Psychological Bulletin.

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03 Sep 2020, 7:34 am

Interesting. It shows that there is a lot more to how we think and relate to things then a simplified theory may portray.

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03 Sep 2020, 8:50 am

Good to know the experts are finally catching up to what we've known for years.

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04 Sep 2020, 8:43 am

Interesting. I have relatively good theory of mind as for the person who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, I think. But specialists had no larger doubts when they gave me AS diagnosis.

I may quite difficulty accept that others does not think the same as me. I also have diminished social drive (as I think) and tended to be somewhat one-sided in conversations (or maybe I am still?). Talking with people now may be something interesting for me, something against boredom. But earlier in life I had rather poor abilities in small talks and was probably uninterested in them.

I think that many cases of autism may be significantly associated with diminished social drive and motivation, which may present as being uninterested in making friends or being emotionally loved (for example by parents). Deficits in adequate shame may be also common among people with various sorts of autism IMO.


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04 Sep 2020, 1:21 pm

I used to have that so-called "theory of mind" impairment and now I don't and I know what caused it. I felt rejected by society early in life which made me think I was on my own so I focused on myself and my needs which made me self-absorbed. Feeling like I was different and didn't belong resulted in chronic stress which studies show changes the way the brain works. Since I got rid of that stress, I've been able to read social cues and understand people much better. I went from having 100% mindblindness to being not much different than other people.