This post is in the Executive function category

Theory of Mind (ToM)  is associated with the concepts of Executive Function and Empathy. ToM involves reading and interpreting the physical and social cues that indicate another’s state of mind, and recalling and adapting past experiences in order to make accurate predictions about the current experience of others, not just in a logical sense but also an emotional one. Theory of Mind is the ability to spontaneously  adopt the understanding of others. It is related to the “perspective taking” part of empathy  (Rogers, Dziobek, Hassenstab, Wolf & Convit, 2006) and it develops in typical children around the age of three or four. Klin et al (2003) introduced the concept of embodied or enacted adaptation to the process of ToM and suggested that in autism, this developmental process is interrupted because “the typical overriding salience of social stimuli is not present. In its place is a range of physical stimuli, which attracts the child’s selective attention” (p. 357). However, Klin does not go into why the salience is inverted.

An impairment of ToM results in an inability, not so much in understanding another’s point of view once it is articulated, but in understanding that another could possibly have a different point of view.  It can be as simple a matter as knowing that when someone enters a room, that they have not heard the previous conversation.

In Neuroscience, empathy or intuitive emotional response has long been recognised as a function of the amygdala  (Critchley et al., 2000; Nacewicz et al., 2006) (although this has recently been disputed  (Dziobek, Fleck, Rogers, Wolf & Convit, 2006) ) and it is the amygdala’s role in Theory of Mind that has pointed to this association of the three elements. In particular, it has long been accepted that impaired Executive Function has a central role in deficits of ToM, however Fine   (2001) indicates that Theory of Mind can be impaired with amygdala damage, but with otherwise normal Executive Function. Therefore the emotive functions of ToM are still open to scrutiny.

It could be argued that those with impaired ToM are the only ones who need a theory of Mind.  Most people don’t need the theory because they already have it in practice – it is spontaneous, intuitive.  A typical person is not surprised to hear another person’s perspective or idea.  However, I am not typical and although I’m quite good at pretending to be when I have to, it is a very stressful and tiring way to be.  I can “do” ToM to some degree, but it is generally not spontaneous.  It requires a conscious prompt to engage a logical process.  “I need to imagine I am someone else now”.  If the other person is actually behaving logically, (according to my own logic) I’ll most likely get it right.  If they are responding emotionally to something there’s a good chance I’ll get it wrong, and if I’m distracted or stressed, that conscious effort may not occur at all.  This is in line with my theory that local perceptions are blocking the pathways to ToM cognition.

In my case it is not so much the ability to do the theoretical projection, it is spontaneously knowing in any given circumstance that I need to.  This, I believe, is where the executive function comes in.  ToM is a cognitive and imaginative social skill that can be learned and developed as a “second order Theory of mind”  (Rausch, Johnson & Casanova, 2008, p. 40) through conscious observation and logical processes.  However this skill is less useful if the understanding of the social context, which is much harder to teach, is lacking, and this is where we fall down.

In my music practice, it is predictable that ToM will come into play in collaborative interactions where an agreement is required on an interpretation of intent.  Video evidence of my work in the studio environment suggests that the social context is complex and sometimes difficult for me to navigate, particularly if there is more than one other person involved.  This is indicated quite strongly through the section on Empathy, particularly the Eric and Emma discourse.  People close to me, who have permission to do so, often remind me that I seem to skip the beginning of conversations, apparently assuming that they know what I’m thinking, or conversely ask them to introduce their topics to me more explicitly, as I am not aware of their own state of mind.

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