Theory of Mind: The Trials of Neurological Immigrants

Okay, so my last post was an example of the insanity of my thought process.  This is going to attempt to make that make sense.  Or at least give some order to it.  Just a quick aside, I posted that even though it was confusing and jumbled because I want to show you what my process is.

When I presented at the Computers and Writing Conference a week and a half ago, one of the people I had gotten to know through the weekend, the writer of the blog Yes, That Too, asked the question, “Theory of who’s mind?”  At the time, the question didn’t quite click with me.

On Sunday night, I was reading a booklet that I found on the Autism Self-Advocacy Network’s website.  In it, it says, “Many people rely on their own intuitions about how they would act, when trying to take the perspectives of others” (12).  That was when the realization of what the question “Theory of who’s mind” really meant.

To begin, prior to Sunday night, I was trying to determine what the in between was in theory of mind.  Everything that I had read said that theory of mind went from “knowing that other people have their own thoughts and emotions” straight to “knowing what those other people are thinking.”  There has to be something in between those two parts.  I related it to a math problem.  There is something in between knowing that there is an answer to a math problem and knowing what that answer actually is.  We know that it is attempting to solve the problem (which has many different parts with that as well like knowing addition and subtraction, but I digress).

On Sunday, I think may have I figured it out, it was the combination of the ASAN booklet and the question, “Theory of who’s mind?”  What if theory of mind is not as complex as the researchers attempt to say it is.  They make it sound like the brain is actually able to read another person’s mind…but what this mindreading that based on?  Is it solely cognitive (You just instinctively know with no subconscious attempts to recognize behavior)?  Is it solely behavioral (You see someone crying in front of a dead body, you have consciously observed it and know that they are probably missing that person)?  Or is it possibly both?

What if theory of mind is two parts: 1) assuming that another person’s brain functions in the same way yours does, and 2) thinking, perhaps subconsciously (and this could be the origin of the idea that theory of mind is innate in humans), about if you were in the same situation that they are in or when you have the same facial expression that they have on their face or whatever behavior triggers theory of mind, what would you be thinking or feeling?

I posit that this is the in between, this idea that actually completely contradicts the language used in theory of mind.  The language used in theory of mind goes from “other people have their own thoughts and feelings” to “knowing what those are.”  What I am proposing is contradictory to this, from “other people have their own thoughts and feelings, but they are very similar to me, so they think and use language like I do” to “I know what I would be thinking/feeling/know if I were them right now.”

I have to question at this point: are these really contradictory?  They both recognize that other people have their own thoughts and emotions, but there is a step further in what I am proposing.

Now, for a rhetorical question, brought to you by me, Sam Harvey.  What brain structure is most dominant/common in the world?  Answer: neurotypical.  What brain structure are autistics?  Answer: neurodiverse.  Now, if we use the definition that I propose for theory of mind, then people are going to approach others with the assumption that their brains are like their own.

The irony of all of this is: this definition of theory of mind is an antithesis of itself.  The ability to know other people’s thoughts and emotions are not my own, but they are because they have a similar brain to me.  What would be expected if this is true is a divergence between the neurodiverse and the neurotypical individuals when they are trying to have a theory of mind for the other.  By divergence, I mean, they are unable to (or struggle with) understand(ing) what the other is thinking.

Gopnik (1993) gives a vivid account of her attempt to imagine just what the world must look like through the eyes of someone who is mindblind:

This is what it’s like to sit round the dinner table. At the top of my field of vision is a blurry edge of nose, in front are waving hands….Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways….Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath those spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved toward you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.

(Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness, 1995, 4-5)

As an autistic, and therefore as a mindblind person, I can promise you that I do not see other people as mindless skin-bags.  They have emotions, thoughts, and feelings as equally real as my own.  So, as this can very clearly show, people are mindreaders, or have theory of mind, are mindblind, or lack theory of mind, when it comes to mindreading those who are mindblind.

If you take into account what I am proposing, then theory of mind is based on the assumption (whether you are a fluent mindreader or not) that the person you are interacting with has the same neurology as you.  If they do not, then you will struggle or lack a theory of mind when attempting to mindread these people because you do not understand how their brains work.

I would say theory of mind is innate to humans, but the current definition of theory of mind is theory of the neurotypical mind.  All of the theory of mind tests test autistics for the neurotypical mind.  But autistics are not neurotypical and, even if they learn how to think like a neurotypical, they are not neurotypical natives (those who were born neurotypical), they are, in effect, neurotypical immigrants.

At the end of his book “Mindblindness,” Simon Baron-Cohen points out that there are some autistics who are able to show that they recognize other people have their own thoughts, emotions (by passing a theory of mind test like a neurotypical), but he goes on to point out that they still do not have a theory of mind.

The Neurotypical Immigrants are shunned and marginalized because they seem normal, but not completely normal, so they can’t claim their autistic because they seem too normal, but they can’t claim they are normal because they aren’t normal enough.

So, the question that I have for myself and you if you have any thoughts is: how can I set forth to prove this theory?  And how can I tie it back to rhetoric?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: