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Investigating Theory of Mind in autism Fulvia Castelli California Institute of Technology 2006. Plan of the talk. The concept of Theory of Mind Sherlock Holmes Investigating Theory of Mind “Off-line”language-based paradigms “On-line” non language-based paradigm A research model
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California Institute of Technology
The concept of Theory of Mind
Investigating Theory of Mind
“On-line” non language-based paradigm
A research model
A Multi-layered Theory of Mind ability
Theory of Mind tasks
The Animation task: mental states attribution
The Valley Task: intended goal-attribution
In “A scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes has been instructed by his client to find a photograph that a lady has safely concealed in her house.
SH cunning plan is to make the lady think that her living room is on fire by tossing in a smoke rocket and raising a fire alarm.
What happens afterwards is exactly what SH had predicted: the lady fears that the fire would destroy the photograph, and wants to secure it.
She opens the secret hiding place, and doing so she revealed it to SH.
Sherlock Holmes solved the case by attributing the correct mental states to the lady and predicting her actions
hold the property
hold the property of
states of affairs
Intentionalityis the feature that sets completely apart mental states from physical states:
H2O is poisonous”
John has contrasting beliefs that point towards the same object
John has a false belief pointing towards a non-existing state of affair
Representation of the reality...
Change of reality…
Representation of a mental state that is different from reality:
Sally has a false belief (out-of-date representation)
4 years old typically developing children pass FB test
3 years old typically developing children do not pass FB test
Children with autismwith a VMA above 4 yrs
do not pass
false belief tests
Failure at attributing a false belief to others reflects
some serious deficit in understanding mental states
- a deficit in Theory of Mind -
Diagnosis of autism is made on behavioural criteria.
The necessary and sufficient features for the diagnosis are
Qualitative impairment in:
The notion of autisticspectrum
makes sense of the wide range of severity
of the symptoms characterised by
a triad of impairments
Thequestion to be answered is then:
“If there is no single origin nor any single kind of damage
that can be used as criterion to set apart
autism from other disorders,
what then, justifiesthe application of a single label?”
The explanation of autism at the cognitive level
concerns a single cognitive deficit, namely,
a ToM deficit
(or a mentalizing deficit)
Causal modelling is a neutral framework which enables
explicit comparison of different theories
about developmental disorders.
It allows to look at different levels of disorders within a unified model, and can be used to examine
biological, cognitive, behavioral,
and environmental factors
This causal pattern shows a disorder with
multiple biological causes, and several symptoms,
but a single defining cognitive deficit
Biological level : origin of a developmental disorder
Cognitive level: selective deficit
Behavioral level: symptoms
The level of cognitive processes makes the link to behavior as well as to the brain functions.
Autism: developmental DELAY in mentalizing
Eventually, high functioning individuals with autism show a good performance on language based mentalising tasks
Nevertheless, high-functioning individuals with autism
show persistent social difficulties just as other individuals with autism
How can the gap
ToM good performance & persistent social impairment
HF people with autism adopt
language-based / off-line compensatory strategies
to overcome their difficulties.
However, it is possible that
these strategies are not sufficiently fine-grained
to compensate the impairment at an automatic level.
A challenge for creating mentalising tasks:
To bypass learned strategies
and tap real-life impairments by using non-verbal stimuli.
Byinvestigating high-functioning people with autism
during on-line processing,
which has the advantage of engaging mentalizing at an
rather than off-line,
which has the disadvantage of allowing time to work out the answer by logical inference.
A multi-layered mechanism
which has the competence to represent properties of an AGENT
represents only mechanical relations displayed “here and now”
represents relations between agents and events that are at a distant time and places
represents an agent’s relations that are
beyond spatio-temporal circumstances
physical level: no itentionality
low-level ToM: intended -goals
(future states of affair)
hi-level ToM: beliefs and desires
People have a pervasive tendency to infer what is
in the minds of other people ... and
The perception of the
movement patterns of simple shapes
evokes either “behavioural” or “mentalistic” descriptions
(Abell et al, 2000; Castelli et al, 2000, 2002)
The animation task
People with autism used less mental states terms than controls to describe ToM animations
People with autism described the Theory of Mind animations less appropriately than the controls. When they provided mentalistic descriptions, they often referred to inappropriate mental states.
Evidence for persistent mentalising deficit
in high-functional individuals with autism
who pass standard ToM tests
The on-line mentalising task
based on visual perception of kinetic patterns
is sensitive enough to tap
real-life difficulties in understanding
complex social interactions
“Minimal” Perceptual triggering inputs to attribute intentionality
(Premack & Premack, 1994)
1- goal-directed motion
2- repeated motion (failing and trying again)
3) variable motion pattern
The “wall task”in pre-school children 3/5 year-olds
(Montgomery and Montgomery, 1999)
The red circle jumps a total of 3 times:
Twice it bounces off the wall, the third time it:
1) overcomes the wall (goal-attained), lands next to the target
2) fails and lands next to the non-target (goal failed)
3) fails and lands equidistant to the target and non-target (neutral)
Results: Children attribute an intended goal to an agent in the presence of a persistent movement when ignoring the agent’s final outcome.
Kinetic patterns are highly important in inferring an agent’s goal.
- The paradigm includes only the manipulation of the outcome variable, whereas the motion pattern of the agent is the same in all conditions
- It is not clear whether motion is just a sufficient cue, or also a necessary one.
A novel paradigm was created using computer animated sequences with the aim of :
a) Investigating the ability to attribute an agent’s intention in the presence of an agent’s persistent motion and improving attempts towards a goal in children with autism
b) investigating developmental changes in the perception of an agent motion when it reaches a goal: is the perception of motion cue more salient than the perception of the outcome?
the target is visible to the agent, and it is plausible and obvious
(agent is trying to overcome the force of gravity in order to get to the top of the valley)
Is the perception of motion cue more salient than the perception of the agent’s final outcome?
Our main question:
What brain system is underlying this ability?
Brain imaging studies on mindreading
What tasks have been used?
What brain regions have been activated?
Example ToM story: “A burglar who has just robbed a shop is making his getaway. As he is running home, a policeman on his beat sees him drop his glove. He doesn't know the man is a burglar, he just wants to tell him he dropped his glove. But when the policeman shouts out to the burglar, "Hey, you! Stop!", the burglar turns round, sees the policeman and gives himself up. He puts his hands up and admits that he did the break-in at the local shop”. Why did the burglar do that?
Example Physical story: “A burglar is about to break into a jewellers’ shop. Carefully he crawls under the electronic detector beam. If he breaks this beam it will set off the alarm. Quietly he opens the door of the store-room and sees the gems glittering. As he reaches out, however, he steps on something soft. He hears a screech and something small and furry runs out past him, towards the shop door. Immediately the alarm sounds” Why did the alarm sound?