I was reading the excellent new book by Chris Frith titled ” Making up the mind: how the brain creates our mental world” and was delighted to discover that Chris Frith, a leading world authority on Schizophrenia (and whose wife Uta Firth is a world authority on Autism) also contrasts Autism and Schizophrenia along the social, mind-reading dimension.

To quote from his book:

We understand that people’s behavior is controlled by beliefs even if these beliefs are false. And we soon learn that we can control people’s behavior by giving them false beliefs. This is the dark side of communication.

Without this awareness that behavior can be controlled by beliefs, even when these are false, deliberate deception and lying are impossible. In autism this awareness seems to be lacking, and people with autism can be incapable of deception. At first thought the inability of the autistic person to lie seems to be a charming and desirable trait. But this trait is part of a wider failure to communicate, which also makes people with autism seem rude and difficult. It can often make them lonely and friendless. In practice, friendly interactions are maintained by frequent little deceptions and circumlocutions that sometimes hide our true feelings.

At the other extreme from autism lies the person with paranoid schizophrenia who is aware of intentions that are invisible to rest of us. For the person with paranoia every statement can be a deception or a hidden message that has to be interpreted. Hostile statements can be interpreted as friendly. Friendly statements can be interpreted as hostile.

One person heard voices saying “Kill yourself ” and “He’s a fool.” He described these voices as two benevolent spirits who wanted him to go to a better world. Another person heard voices saying “Be careful” and “Try harder.” These were “powerful witches who used to be my neighbours . . . punishing me.”

This hyperawareness of the intentions and feelings of other people can be so intense as to be overwhelming.

The walk of a stranger in the street could be a “sign” to me that I must interpret. Every face in the windows of a passing street car would be engraved on my mind, all of them concentrating on me and trying to pass me some kind of message. . . . The significance of the real or imagined feelings of people was very painful. To feel that a stranger passing on the street knows your innermost soul is disconcerting. I was sure that the girl in the office on my right was jealous of me. I felt that the girl in the office on my left wanted to be my friend but I made her feel depressed. . . . The intensity with which I felt [these impressions] made the air fairly crackle when the typists in question came into my office. Work in a situation like that is too difficult to be endured at all. I withdrew farther and farther.

In such a state the possibility of meeting other minds has been temporarily lost. This vivid experience of the minds of others no longer corresponds to reality. Like the person with autism, the person with paranoia is alone.

It is important to pause here and note that there are two issue involved in the concept of the social brain. In words of Frith himself:

Perhaps the most important attribute of the social brain is that it allows us to make predictions about people’s actions on the basis of their mental states. This assumption that behaviour is caused by mental states has been called taking an ‘intentional stance’ (Dennett 1987) or ‘having a theory of mind’ (Premack & Woodruff 1978). The largely automatic process by which we ‘read’ the mental states of others is called mentalizing.

Thus, the deficits (and the excesses) in Autism (and schizophrenia) with relation to the social mind may arise from deficits in both of the processes involved. I have argued earlier that Schizophrenics/ Psychotics have too much of an intentional stance and have an animistic bias, while the reverse is true of Autistics. Similarly others , based on Mirror Neuron deficits have argued that the capacity to mentalize or infer mental states of other is impaired in Autism. The capacity to infer mental state sof others may be enhanced in schizophrenics/ psychotics (thus making them better artists/ writers).

To me having the Friths on my side is very important. Chris Frith is a very engaging author and I highly recommend his book Making up the Mind to all the readers of this blog. He doesn’t tackle the question of consciousness; but on the other hand shows brilliantly – how, effortlessly and unconsciously, our brain helps us navigate the physical as well as the social world.

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