In this first podcast episode of the new year Dr. Steven Gutstein talk to us about a very important topic in autism, theory of mind.

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Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD: A New Perspective. A podcast show where we help you understand what’s going on in the mind of your child, and we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Gutstein talks about very important topic in autism, theory of mind. Let’s listen in.

Dr. Gutstein: When we’re involved in what I think of as a typical conversation, none of us is able to accurately infer the other person’s feelings, their intentions, their beliefs, and be accurate most of the time. Now I’m not talking about thinking about other people when you’re offline, like considering going shopping, considering what a friend might like, or remembering something about someone else, or considering your shared futures when you’re alone or by yourself, or wondering if you’ve hurt their feelings afterwards and you start reflecting and say, “Why didn’t that work out?” I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about continually moving dynamic online situation engagement, which is what a conversation, typical real-world social interaction. It’s not scripted, right?

Dr. Gutstein: I want you to think about the idea that you would be involved in that conversation and somehow at the same time conducting what the scientists that talk about as theory of mind, which is dividing up your attention as you’re talking, and thinking, and being with the other person. To conduct this very complex, intuitive, meta-cognitive process. Trying to make inferences about what the other person might be feeling and thinking and believing and knowing, at the same time while all this is going on. Well, let me just say that even that idea, that type of operation, isn’t available to anyone even in a poor form, until you’re approaching adolescence. And even then, it’s going to not work more than it is going to work, right? This idea that you can split up your attention and shift between all these different areas is something that is a myth for all of us, rather than reality.

Dr. Gutstein: Let’s face it. When we’re engaging with another person, really engaging in relationship and in interesting conversation, most of the time, we’re not going to know what’s going on in their mind. Revelation. So theory of mind is wrong. Most of the time we don’t operate with theory of their mind. In fact, most of the time we’re not going to be even aware of what’s going on in our own minds. Right?

Kat Lee: Yes, that’s true.

Dr. Gutstein: I want you to consider the complexity of trying to understand another person’s mind during some kind of online engagement like this. Let’s say you have to figure out, asking yourself questions. How much of my limited mental resources should I spend on this as opposed to anything else that was going on between us, right? And then what part of their world should I focus on? How about their feeling? Oh, which feelings? Their feelings towards me, their feelings towards other persons, their feelings towards themselves, their feelings towards the current problem, on, and on, and on. And what about their intentions or their goals, should I focus on that, should I focus on their mental state? What about their beliefs, or whether we have the same experience base. And we can both be in the same place, and have very vastly different experiences. Should I assume it’s the same, should I assume it’s different?

Dr. Gutstein: I mean, think about just that. All of these things could be going on in their mind. So if I have to focus on that, how would I decide it. This is moment to moment what I should do, right? In this respect, things like the theory of mind concept and things like the Sally Anne test and its equivalent where they take a bunch of people and they test out, you have this information, and they left the room and they don’t have this information, so what do you think they’re going to do based on the fact that their information is different when they come back?

Dr. Gutstein: Well, that is very dangerous, because almost all the time in the real world, that’s not the case. Almost most of the time in the real world, you have no idea what their knowledge base is compared to yours. If you make that assumption, you’re going to be really … it’s a disaster. You’re going to have a real problem assuming that you know what they know. They’re going to be insulted, and they’re going to want to not deal with you anymore. So now you have teaching theory of mind is the worst thing you could possibly do because, again, in the real world it’s better off assuming that you don’t know what the other person’s thinking and feeling.

Dr. Gutstein: Now you can teach people to actually be accurate in assuming what other people are thinking about, and feeling, and knowing, it’s one of the most dangerous thing I can ever think about. That’s sort of like someone who has delusions. Schizophrenics might believe that. That’s really what a schizophrenic believes, I know what’s in your mind. I can tell what you’re really … that’s scary. Why would you teach someone that. In fact, if you have to, only do one thing and teach them only one thing, which I don’t think you should do, but if you had to, it would be to teach them that you don’t know. But that you might want to know, but you have no idea what they’re thinking and feeling, right? If you only had to do one thing versus that you could learn how to do that. I would teach them don’t ever assume, right, that you know what’s going on in other people’s minds. And most of the time what’s going on in your mind, if that was my ongoing position.

Dr. Gutstein: But the problem is, anyway you look at this, it’s a recipe for failure. So think about how you would teach this. And we spend our whole life trying to figure this out, and we never get it. So here it is, if I never try to guess what you’re feeling and thinking, I’m going to fail, if I’m oblivious and never try. But if I do guess, and I act on my assumptions, I’m going to fail, and you’re going to be insulted, and it’s going to be wrong. If I spend too little effort or too much effort trying to infer what’s going on with you, I’m going to fail. If I try to find out and ask you too frequently, I’m going to fail because you’re going to get annoyed. If I don’t ask you frequently enough, I’m going to fail. Right? Right.

Dr. Gutstein: Thinking about it in my own feelings, if was continuing just checking on what I’m feeling and thinking every moment, I would fail. I would be paralyzed. Okay? Think about how impossible that is. On that respect, there’s no way you get it, right? Too much is wrong, too little is wrong. Guessing is wrong, not guessing is wrong. Now we’re getting into the messiness of the real world, right? And that’s only part of the picture. In any conversation, right, that’s only a piece of it, what’s going on in our minds. Right? And what happens when the things your partner says, which is going to happen, trigger all of these associations in your mind. What about the changes that are continually going on in your mind? The feelings about your prior experiences that might get triggered. Thoughts about the future, ideas, opinions, worries, problems, goals, whether you agree with your partner, whether you understand what they’re saying. All those things are happening in your mind the same time things are happening in their mind.

Dr. Gutstein: Well, how do you do that? And then, what about a third conversational stream, what’s happening with the topic between you? How it’s continuing to shift. We might be talking about ourselves, other persons, other groups, and even fictional persons that we may be both familiar with or only one of us is familiar with. We might shift between being playful and being serious. We might shift between just imagining and fantasizing, and making realistic plans. We might shift between experiences that we both had and ones that I didn’t have, or we didn’t share together. Between futures that we both might participate in and individual futures. Between recent events in the past, and distant events in the past. Between upcoming future, tomorrow, and ten years from now. Right? Those things are going from a moment to moment basis. And those should.

Dr. Gutstein: There’s another stream of information that we would have to deal with. What happens when we teach somebody that they need to understand theory of mind, and similarly understanding what the other person’s thinking and feeling. How is that even possible when none of us can do that? None of us can do it.

Dr. Gutstein: So the answer is, so how do we do this. There’s all this stream of information, right? Got to ask this, how does anyone manage this continual, multiple streams of information that are going on? Well not by taking them apart and doing each step in that. I was thinking about this. Now I’m going to shift to my own thoughts, now I’m going to shift to yours, now I’m going to look at the shared topic, now I’m going to look at your feelings, now I’ll look your thoughts, now I’ll look at your beliefs, now I’ll look at your …

Kat Lee: Oh gosh.

Dr. Gutstein: There’s no way to do that. It’s certainly not something you’re going to teach someone as a skill. If you taught that as skill to do that, it’s an impossibility. The answer is, there’s no right answer. It’s a very messy, ambiguous process. And by the way it’s very influences by the larger context, because the answer is, it depends. Should I just not care about what you think and feel? Right, sometimes I shouldn’t care. If I’m on elevator with somebody, we say hello to each other, we’re never going to see each other again, why am I going to stop to care about what’s going on in your mind, or mine.

Dr. Gutstein: Should I ask them what they know? Sometimes. Should I try to infer it? Sometimes. Should I act on my inferences? Sometimes. Right, it depends on so many different factors. The nature of your relationship, the history of your relationship, what you’ve already worked out as the ground rules, right? Even the future of your relationship. If you’re only going to see this person one time, you’re never going to see them again, why spend the effort wondering how they interpret things, and what knowledge they have, and how they feel about me, and all those things, right?

Dr. Gutstein: And it’s a specific person. You’re engaging with their personality. Some people don’t want you to assume, they want to get asked. They get insulted if you try to assume what they think. If you don’t assume what I think and feel, other people get annoyed very quickly if you start to ask them that. Leave me alone, stop bothering me about what I think and feel, right. Some people are more revealing, so it depends on that. It depends on so many different factors. What you’re doing at the moment, right? Or what your role relationships are.

Dr. Gutstein: I want you to consider that if you approach this in the analytic way and teach people these types of skills, you’re trying to teach them to do something that no one can ever do, and it’s not reality. None of us ever do this. None of use ever do this with our minds. No one can do it.

Kat Lee: And thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child, and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


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