Sometimes psychologists try to explain autism using ‘theory of mind’.
Books on psychology devote whole chapters to theory of mind, but to keep a lid on it here, I’ll just quote Dictionary.com:
the ability to interpret one’s own and other people’s mental and emotional states, understanding that each person has unique motives, perspectives, etc.
The key is that it seems to be something inherent in one’s psyche. People who don’t have it are not able to learn it.
Those who don’t have a full theory of mind are likely to be diagnosed as autistic.
Yet some high-functioning autistic people function fairly well. Do these people have some form of ‘theory of mind’, or do they function in some other way?
I’ve been thinking about that idea for a long time. Only this week though did I find a good description of that “other way”. To my surprise, it was in a book about baboons.
In Baboon Metaphysics, biologist Dorothy Cheney and psychologist Robert Seyfarth examine the enigmatic evidence for a theory of mind in baboons.
Baboons function in a highly social society. In some ways, they’re a more social animal than humans. But they show strong evidence of not having a theory of mind. How then do they socialize?
Well, Cheney and Seyfarth discuss our supposed need for a ‘theory of mind’, then say:
But a simpler strategy based on the memory of past interactions can be almost as successful and result in ostensibly similar outcomes. People with Asperger’s syndrome, a highly functional form of autism, often report that they have difficulty recognizing complex mental states like envy and love in others. Rather than relying on their (often faulty) assessment of others’ mental states when a complex social interaction presents itself, they depend on a “library” of carefully stored memories of previous interactions when deciding how to respond.
There it is. As soon as I read that, something in me said – ‘that’s what you’ve been doing all your life’.
When I was a boy, and then a teenager, I didn’t understand other people. I didn’t socialize outside of my family at all. But when I reached the age of eighteen, I resolved to solve the problem, and began inserting myself into social circles wherever I could.
I would do things and say things that led to failure after failure, but I remembered them and thought about each event. I learned by trial and error, maybe like a baboon, although probably not as effectively as a baboon. It took me a long time to get anywhere.
But I did slowly find my way through the social labyrinth. I thought I was getting closer and closer to the mind-set of social people, that I was soon going to be like them. I didn’t realize that I may have been getting more and more like a baboon.
Now, I should say that I always understood that other people were ‘thinking’, which is part of ‘theory of mind’. But when psychologists talk about ‘theory of mind’, I now wonder if they aren’t actually referring to something more than that, to some innate programming that social people have that allows them to resonate with each other.
Anyway, yes, for the past 50 years or so, I think I’ve been making my way through society like a baboon – unconsciously measuring each new situation against an accumulating library of memories from the past (if that is what baboons are doing).
Do you see what I mean? Social people have a map of of the social labyrinth in their genes. Those of us without that map have to devise our own. We keep a mental notebook, collecting memories that help us decide which path will lead us somewhere, and which might be dead ends.
Try thinking about your experiences with other people along these lines. If it seems to fit, maybe you too think like a baboon.
By the way, Baboon Metaphysics is a fascinating book. Read it and you’ll meet some memorable baboons. Like the one who got fired from his job on the railway, and won it back in court. I’m not kidding. Your respect for baboons will skyrocket.