Autism, Mirror Neurons, and Theory of Mind

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Biology 202

2006 Third Web Paper

On Serendip

Autism, Mirror Neurons, and Theory of Mind

Bethany Keffala

Autism is a developmental disorder whose symptoms tend to manifest very early in life. They often include unusual behavior and social interaction, as well as great difficulty communicating (3) . It has been hypothesized that autistic people may lack in development of theory of mind, and it has also been suggested that a mirror neuron system deficiency may be a cause. It seems to me that both of these guesses are on the right track, but that they are connected, and that theory of mind is a side effect of our advanced mirror neuron system.

Non-autistic children generally start developing theory of mind as early as five months old, with a growth spurt at around three or four years, and with development nearing completion at around five years of age (6) . With theory of mind, we are able to recognize that the self and its desires are separate from the rest of the world, and that other people have minds, and mental and emotional states that are similar to our own but are products of their own experiences. Autistic children develop theory of mind later than non-autistics, if they develop it at all.

It is very plausible that theory of mind is connected to the mirror neuron system. Theory of mind is all about using our own experience and our own thoughts and beliefs in order to think about someone else's thoughts or beliefs, and how they might be similar or different. We use what we have as a sort of template to try to comprehend where another person is coming from. This is very like mirror neurons, which are the key linking action and observation, and how we understand the action of another person.

Though mirror neurons were first discovered as a link between action and observation, it has since been suggested that they may also play a very central role in the learning and evolution of language. They are found in a very important language center of the brain, and it has been demonstrated that they might be at least partially responsible for our ability to comprehend each other's speech, much in the way that they help us to comprehend one another's actions. As a system, it seems that the function of mirror neurons in general is to act as templates for understanding the variety of behaviors of those around us. We use the same system to act and speak as we do to comprehend this behavior in others, much like theory of mind for which we refer to our own beliefs and experiences to form guesses about what is going on in another person's mind.

Mirror neuron systems in autistic people are not as highly functioning as those of non-autistic adults. It has been suggested that mirror neurons are responsible for our ability to empathize with another's emotions, and recently there has been much research looking at a possible link between autism and a deficiency in the mirror neuron system. When a non-autistic person watches someone expressing emotion, experimenters can see an activation of the limbic system (which is linked with emotion) in the brain of the watcher. This, however, is not the case for someone with autism. They may be able to imitate the facial expressions or actions of the person, but the limbic system is not activated (1) . One study in which autistic children watched a tape of people using different facial expressions to express different emotions showed that the less there was of a blood-flow to mirror neurons, the more problem the person had in deducting which emotion was being displayed by the person in the tape (2) .

Another example of a possible connection between autism, mirror neurons, and theory of mind can be found when we look at language. We find this connection in particular when we look at the use of figurative language in everyday conversation. It is thought that the understanding of another's intention is vital in the understanding of everyday conversation. This touches on theory of mind, in that theory of mind helps us to understand another person's states of mind and intentions. Without theory of mind, everyday conversation, which is full of figurative language would become very confusing. This seems to be the case for autistics. Some examples of interactions with autistic children follow:
"A request to 'Stick your coat down over there' is met by a serious request for glue. Ask if she will 'give you a hand', and she will answer that she needs to keep both of her hands and cannot cut one off to give to you. Tell him that his sister is 'crying her eyes out' and he will look anxiously on the floor for her eyeballs" (7) . If an autistic person has a faulty or non-existent theory of mind, then they will have a difficult time guessing the intention of a speaker with whom they are trying to converse. This missing understanding of intention prevents them from arriving at a figurative conclusion, and instead they react as if the speaker were speaking literally.

Some deficiency in the mirror neuron system could very well result in an impaired development of theory of mind. If mirror neurons are vital to the development of theory of mind, and if both theory of mind and mirror neurons are vital to successful communication, then it makes a lot of sense that we find autism paired with an underdeveloped mirror neuron system. It may be beneficial for us to look at more ways to test the connections between these phenomena. It seems that the level of development of theory of mind ranges across cases of autism. It would be a good idea to see if there is a correlation between mirror neuron activity and the level of development of theory of mind. It might also be productive to see if this correlates with level of ease in comprehension and utilization of figurative language.

Works consulted:







7)Happé, Francesca G. E. "Understanding Minds and Metaphors: Insights from the Study of Figurative Language in Autism". In METAPHOR AND SYMBOLIC ACTIVITY. Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1995.

8) Dennis, Maureen, Lazenby, Anne L., and Lockyer, Linda. "Inferential Language in High-Function Children with Autism." In the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2001.

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