an inability to know what others are thinking
Mind-blindness can be described as an inability
to develop an awareness of what is in the mind of another human.
It is not necessarily caused by an inability to imagine an answer,
but is often due to not being able to gather enough information
to work out which of the many possible answers is correct. Mind-blindness
is the opposite of empathy.
Baron-Cohen was the first person to use the term 'mind-blindness'
to help understand some of the problems encountered by people with
autism, Asperger's syndrome
or other developmental disorders.
The Sally-Anne test
The Sally-Anne test is a psychological test, used
in developmental psychology to measure a person's social cognitive
ability to attribute false beliefs to others (Wimmer & Perner,
1983). In 1988, Leslie and Frith repeated the experiment with human
actors (rather than dolls) and found similar results.
The experimenter uses two dolls, "Sally"
and "Anne". Sally has a basket; Anne has a box. Experimenters
show their subjects (usually children) a simple skit, in which Sally
puts a marble in her basket and then leaves the scene. While Sally
is away and cannot watch, Anne takes the marble out of Sally's basket
and puts it into her box. Sally then returns and the children are
asked where they think she will look for her marble. Children are
said to "pass" the test if they understand that Sally
will most likely look inside her basket before realizing that her
marble isn't there.
Normal children under the age of four, along with
most autistic children (of all ages), will answer "Anne's box,"
seemingly unaware that Sally does not know her marble has been moved.
Interpretation of the Sally Anne test
Children who pass the test (presumably) understand
that there are two different sets of beliefs:
their own beliefs, based on what they have personally
seen, heard, remembered, imagined, reasoned, etc.,
the beliefs of others, based on what they have seen, heard, etc.
Children who pass this test are believed to have the following mental
to recognize that other people have perceptions/feelings/beliefs/thoughts/etc.
different from their own;
to recognize that others may not know everything they themselves
know, and vice versa;
to "mind-read" (or "mind-guess") other people's
thoughts and feelings;
and to predict (or even interfere with) other people's third-party
Those children who fail the test are said by some psychologists
to lack a "theory of mind." (In this context, "mind"
refers to psychological processes such as perception, belief, thought,
or memory.) However, failing the Sally-Anne test does not mean that
an individual has no awareness of mental states: great apes and
very young children, who typically fail the test, nonetheless show
other sophisticated social behaviors (such as empathy).
Great apes and other monkeys
Since other great apes are not known to have a
human-like theory of mind, it is assumed that it evolved after our
ancestors diverged from other great apes. Suddendorf has suggested
that this occurred with H. erectus (dating from 1.8 mya). Current
research has failed, however, to disprove conclusively a theory
of mind in other great apes and some new world monkeys outside the
family of great apes, as for example the capuchin monkeys.
Criticism of the Sally Anne test
Strictly speaking, the scenario presented in the
test does not give sufficient information to determine Sally's expectations
about the location of the marble. For example, it is not said whether
Sally and Anne had previously discussed possible locations for the
marble. Thus "I don't know" is, in a sense, the most correct
A positive answer can be reached only by making
assumptions about the unstated parts of the situation. There are
many possible sets of assumptions that could be made, and the small
number of likely answers means that the test cannot adequately distinguish
between many of the possible assumptions. Furthermore, the categorisation
of responses into "passes" and "failures" throws
away most of that information. There are several ways to pass, and
vastly more ways to fail.
These problems make the test of limited use as
a diagnostic tool. The standard interpretation of the test identifies
a particular stage in the most common pattern of development of
social understanding, but it is misleading when applied to subjects
who are not following the standard pattern. This is of particular
concern with autistics, who are commonly diagnosed as lacking a
theory of mind on the basis of "failing" the test.Much
of the information is gathered by "reading" body language
and so a person with pervasive developmental disorders such as autism
or Asperger syndrome may be at least partially mind-blind due to
their inability or difficulty in reading body language.
Body language & mind-blindness
Courses that teach how to read body language are
available. It has been suggested that these can reduce the degree
to which mind-blindness is present. Of course these instructional
methods require a basic assumption that the physical expressions
of individuals in the wild are reflective of the mental state of
the individuals. This however, is not always the case. In many instances
among human interactions, we mask our mental states using body language
that is intentionally incongruent. It is not always true that a
smiling person is happy, nor is it always true that a sad person
does not laugh.
Some question the use of body language instruction
as a means to understand the mind of humans when the world as it
exists currently requires hidden agendas and even outright dishonesty.
It may be that this focus on body language as a means to gaining
insight into the minds of others leaves autistics at a disadvantage
in a world populated by neurotypicals who understand how to manipulate
others using body language. By nature, autistics struggle with the
topic of honesty and their mindblindness may be partly due to an
understanding of the incongruence of body language and thought in
humans. Some notable autistics, including Temple
Grandin, do not have these difficulties with nonhuman animals,
because nonhuman animal behavior patterns are more consistently
indicative of their true states of mind.
An alternate explanation as a way of clarifying
The term 'Mind Blind' is very good as a description
of how people on the autism spectrum may relate to others, almost
like objects, not thinking that others have minds even though very
obviously they know they do. (excluding perhaps the least capable
where we know little about them) Non-Autistics automatically (subconsciously)
deduce the state of another going on non verbal (aka body language)
but this particularly includes high speed facial talk, voice etc.
To a degree Autistics can learn to read some of the non-verbal but
so far as we know the brain is literally different and learnt stuff
using the "wrong" part of the brain is slower as is starting
to appear in research work using brain imaging, including the electromagnetic
work being done right now at Oxford university (written 2007), literally
showing different cognitive delays.
Normal humans "feel" another in the
mind sense and this is duplex so they might loop around getting
the same thing in a feeling sense in each other: this is termed
empathy. Empathy is often erroneously then extended in meaning to
include what is done knowing the mind state of another, shown incorrect
by Autistics not having empathy but can act with compassion on guessing
the mind state of another, the two not being linked. An excellent
example was provided by the wife of an Autistic, 'If I have a headache
he will bring me an aspirin and a glass of water but that is all.'
A psychopath where it is suggested there is excellent empathy might
notionally bring a vomit-inducing pill as a way of hurting a victim
and manipulates to hurt very effectively by being able to read the
mind state of another.
Geoffrey Cowley, "Understanding Autism,"
Newsweek, July 31, 2000.
Simon Baron-Cohen, "First lessons in mind reading," The
Times Higher Education Supplement, July 16, 1995.
Uta Frith, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Review: Mind
Blindness and the Brain in Autism, Neuron, Vol. 32, 969–979, December
20, 2001, http://www.icn.ucl.ac.uk/2001/frith01Neuron.pdf
Suddendorf, T., & Whiten, A. (2001). "Mental
evolution and development: evidence for secondary representation
in children, great apes and other animals." Psychological Bulletin,
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