Fact sheet on alleged epidemic of Autism, an Autism Spectrum Disorder

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.


Simon 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.


Test description

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 capacities:

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 relationships.

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 answer.


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 concept

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, 629-650.


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Scientists are tending to attribute the dramatic rise in Autism rates to increased awareness of Autism, more effective and inclusive diagnostic criteria and detection tools