Developmental psychologist Uta Frith on autism, social interaction, and the difference between mentalizing and empathy
Theory of mind is a pervasive human ability that we didn’t even suspect existed until we studied autism. That’s why it’s very important when you talk about theory of mind also to talk about autism. Theory of mind is a nickname, it’s really intended to refer to the ability that we all have, we, human beings, to understand other human beings, not in terms pf how they behave and what they do, but in terms of what they feel and think. So, totally invisible things in your head, but we have a theory of what happens in your mind. It’s not a theory like philosophers have, not any explicit theory. It’s an intuition.
And, of course, one of the things that mentalizing enables people to do is to lie. It gives you the ability to tell whether you know something and whether I can insert a false belief into your mind, and I then have to track this. So, it’s hugely important tool in our social interaction, not always for the good. One of the things that have been said about autistic people is that they don’t lie. And they don’t, in fact, understand why ordinary people lie all the time. We even lie when we don’t need to. For example, just to be nice for somebody, to be very flattering. all our politeness rules have to do with kind of unconscious mentalizing program which says: “We don’t want to offend him. It is clear, that we are taking feedback all the time and we will see whether we have gone wrong in what we are doing and thinking about them.
So, giving that this is such fanciful idea, which many people would say: “Wow, this is ridiculous, how can you postulate that. That is an ability, like the ability to hear or to see colors. I think that it is just like that, it’s just like an ability to see colors – an ability to see invisible mental states of others, and therefore it has a basis in a brain. And we could show this using neuroimaging methods. We could make people do tasks which demand that you think of mental states and contrast them with tasks that are exactly the same in every possible way, but you don’t have to invoke mental states. These are, for example, movements of objects, like cause and effect. When we are thinking about intentions and beliefs, they all can be expressed in movements, but you would interpret the movement completely differently, intentionally and deliberately, not just as a physical cause and effect. We can compare when people watch little films, when they read stories, all sorts of different methods have been used to see what happens in that brain in these two situations; subtract activity in the brain between those two conditions, and what we can see is a particular network of regions. That is robust network: it’s front regions, temporal regions, and they are very well-connected in the normal case and not so well connected in the case of autism. So, there is a biological basis for theory of mind.
So there are a lot to be done still in research on theory of mind. We need to know whether there is an implicit automatic form, whether we share that with other animals and whether there is an explicit conscious form of theory of mind, perhaps, even other forms that have not even been discovered yet. We need to know whether in ordinary child development the explicit theory of mind builds on the other automatic implicit theory of mind or whether it is completely independent. At this moment, these are all open questions. Sometimes people mistake theory of mind and mentalizing for empathy. It sounds like they are sort of related. And yet we have found through the study of autism, through the methods of brain imaging that these are quite separate things. So, even though mentalizing means taking feelings into account or tracking changes in feelings. Empathy is quite a different sort of ability and empathy rests on different brain system, a brain system that has to do with something like contagion. So what you feel, I feel too, if you laugh, I will laugh, slightly. I might not show it, but we have shown through using very small devices on the face that the muscles that are to do with laughing will be activated, will be ready to laugh when another person laughs. So, this is a kind of automatic mechanism that, we can say, is a primary form of empathy, so that we do indeed feel the other’s pain, and also feel other’s joy. But that is quite separate. And the fascinating thing is that in autism this is actually very often intact and present. So, it’s not the case that in autism all social abilities are missing. It’s just this menthalizing that is missing.