Theory of mind? Occlumency!

by endlesspsych

For quite some time I’ve been promising I’d write a post on theory of mind and the idea that everyone is on a mindlindness continum thinking I was being clever by choosing fiction as a means of illustrating this…

Well as the Bard says…

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley.

(For those unfamiliar with the poetry of Robert Burns or Scots dialect that translates as “the best laid plans of mice and men do often go wrong”.)

Indeed I thought the idea was simple and, in a fit of immodesty, brilliant – turns out it was actually quite complicated and imperfect analogy to spin and as a result probably not ranking in the top ten best ideas I have ever had… Hence the delay which today comes to an end! I apologise profusely to anyone who was expecting more than this blog provides…

It seems prudent to start by restating the definitions of mind blindness and theory of mind.

According to Colmans 2001 edition of the dictionary of psychology the terms are defined as follows:-

Theory of mind (n) Peoples intuitive understanding of their own and other peoples minds or mental states, including beliefs and thoughts.

Mindblindness (n) A Specific inability to appreciate other peoples mental states.

Note these definitions, although usually used to refer to people who have been diagnosed with ASD or aspergers, do not specifically exclude neurotypicals.  Which in fairness is probably stating the obvious as it would probably be erecting a straw man to suggest they did – although perhaps more than accurate to suggest these terms are more often aimed at individuals with ASD then they are at NT’s. Well outside of the computing and electronic industry if the writings of Douglas Coupland are anything to go by (see JPOD in particular).

So it seems fair to compose this post with a view to presenting the argument that we are all on a spectrum for theory of mind and mindblindess. Which may seem trivially true in one sense, if you disregard clairvoyance and other physic ability (which you should really! – hmm a discussion of the evidence for and against psi might be interesting… Well as interesting as typing “inconclusive” several times anyway…), as no one can intuitively understand another human beings mind 100% nor do we always have the ability to appreciate other peoples mental states. Indeed I would argue that a lot of fiction – particularly crime fiction – relies upon the fact that we are all, from time to time a little mindblind.

Michal Shaked and Nurit Yirmiya in 2004, in the journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders vol.344(1) , published a meta-analytical review of matching procedures in Autism research: They conducted three meta-analyses each with implications for future autism research. Meta analysis one concerned the theory of mind hypothesis in Autism and revealed that the data shows theory of mind disabilities are not confined to ASD (although they may be “uniquely severe” in individuals with ASD). Theory of mind disabilities are a feature of other matched samples used in autism research – which include other developmental or learning disorders and neurotypicals.

O’hare, Bremner, Nash, Happe and Pettigrew (which was so close to sounding like some 60’s folk troupe but just missed out) in the same journal this year assessed “typically developing” 5-12 year old children with an advanced test of theory of mind using Happes strange stories.

They discovered no significant difference due to the gender of the children, boys and girls scored alike, but discovered that younger children had more difficulty “reading minds” then older children – although this is not a longitudinal study it does show that Neurotypicals can have problems with mindblindness when dealing with fiction (although it’s worth noting I have no idea how these findings might relate to adults as it appears to be implied in the study that the children’s mindreading ability improves so my point is perhaps a little weak… Remember I said this wasn’t the best idea I had ever had! I meant it…) .

The final piece of research I want to mention before I dive head first into a heady brew of Harry Potter framed speculation is a 2o08 article by Salter, Seigal, Claxton, Lawrence and Skuse this time from the journal Autism, vol12(4).

The research explored whether autistic children could read the mind of an animated triangle and tested children with an ASD how also fell in the expected intelligence range for their age (56 cases and closely matched comparisons were tested). Verbal responses were rated according to the length of their descriptions, their appropriateness and ‘mentalizing’ language to describe the animation.

Children with ASD used ‘mentalizing’ language to describe all the animations as well as comparisons although the content of their descriptions was judged to be significantly less appropriate.  However arguably the fact the children used ‘mentalizing’ language is perhaps a tantalising bit of evidence that traditional conceptions of ASD individuals lacking a theory of mind might not be entirely appropriate. However, as always, it’s probably fair to say more research is needed. (Indeed if I have misunderstood the research please do tell me!)

Anyway, as the post title indicates, I said I was going to attempt to crowbar in an analogy with Harry Potter (well I maybe didn’t say that implicitly but that’s what I am about to do). Specifically the character development of a certain Severus Snape (details on this will be sketchy as I am not the worlds biggest JK Rowling fan) a character whose motives are kept deliberately ambiguous throughout the Harry Potter books.

In the world of magic, if thats not the right term then I apologise for thinking Harry Potter is more twee then it is!,  this is primarily achieved in a world where clairvoyance and mind reading exist through Snapes mastery of Occlumency. Or if you prefer the ability to make others mindblind to his motives.

However I would contend it is not just the characters in the Harry Potter books that are rendered mindblind to Snapes true motives and machinations but the readers as well.

Indeed I would contend that Rowling has written the books in such a way that Snape remains a mystery to the end, indeed American fans before his true nature was revealed printed bumper stickers either supporting or denouncing Snape (unless that was a cynical marketing ploy I feel for it illustrates my point about readers being mindblind).

It is my contention that mindblindness is often used by writers of fiction to set up twists, build suspense and for just basic entertainment value. I further contend that this form of mindblindness exists because we are all on a theory of mind spectrum. Essentially we can all be a little mindblind sometimes. (I hope that doesn’t sound too trite).

Anyway that’s my earnest attempt at handling the issue as promised ages ago. It’s far from perfect but hopefully someone will find it interesting.