IMG_0918 (2)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 this idea, I’ll just quote

the ability to interpret one’s own and other people’s mental and emotional states, understanding that each person has unique motives, perspectives, etc.

Those who don’t have a well-established theory of mind are likely to be diagnosed as autistic.

Yet some high-functioning autistic people function fairly well in society. Do these people have some different form of ‘theory of mind’, or are they doing this in some other way?

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Only recently 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, after discussing this need for a ‘theory of mind’, Cheney and Seyfarth 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.

As soon as I read that, I said to myself – “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 this way. 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, instead, I may have been getting more and more like a baboon.

Now, I should say that I have 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 really 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. We carry a very different map in our pocket.

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, combining science with a playful sense of humor. 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.

Cheney and Seyfarth quote Darwin, who reportedly said you can learn more about metaphysics from a baboon than you will from any philosopher. If a baboon ran for office in the next election where I live, I might be tempted to vote for it. Read that book and your view of baboons will never be the same again, and maybe you’ll learn a bit more about humans too.

3 thoughts on “Autism | Theory of Mind | Do you think like a Baboon?

  1. Yes! The baboon theory makes sense. Well described. I have no innate sense of emotions in others or myself for that matter. Just a library of past events, sometimes incorrectly remembered, which I compare the the current situation.

    Liked by 2 people

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