Imagining Other Minds

Parenting Children With Asperger's And High-functioning Autism

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Metaphor relies on what has been experienced before and therefore transforms the strange into the familiar; without metaphor we cannot imagine what it is to be someone else, we cannot imagine the life of the Other.

Cynthia Ozick

Imagining other minds is the work of novelists, but only recently has the capacity to imagine other minds been viewed as an appropriate object of scientific investigation. Imagining other minds, which is known in cognitive science as a "theory of mind," received its impetus from two different directions: the comparative psychology of primates and observations of autistic children. Most autistic children are missing a capacity to identify with another's intentionality. They lack what can be described as empathy, or as cognitive scientists prefer to say, "a theory of mind." This is a defining characteristic of autism.

Some philosophers, following Descartes, have questioned whether it is logically possible to know other minds. Descartes believed that it is only the self, one's own mind, that can be known with certainty; other minds are logically unknowable. Vico, in contrast, believed that other minds could be known directly. For Vico, knowledge of other minds is a superior form of knowledge. He maintained that our knowledge of other minds is privileged, in the sense that we can imaginatively enter into other minds and understand the works of human creation in a way that is not possible with regard to inanimate or other natural objects. Vico recognized a fundamental distinction between our knowledge of ourselves, which includes knowledge of history and social institutions, of which we are the authors, and knowledge of the natural world, which exists outside of our minds and would remain even if we did not exist. Knowledge of other minds is a form of knowledge that differs from both the third-person perspective of objective science and the introspective or phenomenological perspective.

Psychoanalysts do not question that one can acquire knowledge of others by imaginatively entering into their experience and reconstructing their inner reality. But many neuroscientists would dismiss this form of empathic, dyadic, intersubjective knowledge as unreliable and hence unscientific, since it is not subject to third-person verification. Furthermore, how is one to know that empathic knowledge is not simply a mistaken projection of the observer, what William James (1890) called "the psychologist's fallacy," which he described as "the confusion of his own standpoint with the mental fact about which he is making his report."

Studies of autistic children suggest that our capacity to know other minds is most probably an innate form of knowledge (Baron-Cohen 1999). Our knowledge of other minds may represent a form of cognition that is uniquely human, although, as I shall shortly describe, this claim is controversial. Human infants, in contrast to chimpanzees, demonstrate this cognitive faculty to recognize other minds at approximately nine months of age, although some infant observers, such as Colwyn Trevarthen (1989), claim that infants can have knowledge of others' intentionality as early as three or four months.

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Funny Wiring Autism

Funny Wiring Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in early childhood and affects the functioning of the brain, primarily in the areas of social interaction and communication. Children with autism look like other children but do not play or behave like other children. They must struggle daily to cope and connect with the world around them.

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