Autism, The Introspective Brain, & Why We Treat Some People Differently than Others

This is your brain.  This is your brain on introspection.  Any questions?  Ask yourself.

It has been known for some time that the region of the brain associated with self-introspection, the vMPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), is correlated with understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.

“Navigating social interactions with others requires keeping track of the relationship between oneself and others,” said Dr. Michael Lombardo at the University of Cambridge. “In some social situations it is important to notice that ‘I am similar to you,’ while in other situations it might be important to notice that ‘I am different to you.’ The atypical way the autistic brain treats self-relevant information as equivalent to information about others could derail a child’s social development, particularly in understanding how they relate to the social world around them.”

This differentiating skill seems necessary to get by socially in the real word, and people suffering certain neural and neurogenetic disabilities (such as ASD, autism spectrum disorders) have problems with it.  Social cognition — the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others — is crucial for human beings, other apes, dolphins, crows, and other brainy organisms.  Over the past ten years, a group of regions in the human brain that seem specifically used for social cognition have been analyzed.  A study in the journal, Child Development, investigated these brain regions for the first time in human children.

Scientists at MIT and Yale scanned the brains of 13 children aged 6 to 11 as they were listening to children’s stories.  During the precise moments that the plot indicated what a character wanted, believed, or knew — or when it presented the mental state of the character — brain scan data showed increased activity in these specific brain regions. When the plot cut to other areas, including how characters or the background looked, activity in those brain regions declined.

“What we found — a pattern of typical development — may offer clues as we study atypical social development, as happens in autism,” according to Rebecca Saxe, the Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, who led the study.  “Children with autism appear to have specific difficulties thinking about other people’s thoughts.  Understanding how human brains typically learn to think about thoughts may let us detect what is going wrong in an autistic brain, and maybe even target interventions toward those neural systems, to improve chances for recovery.”

Michael Lombardo, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, and colleagues from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge seem to agree.  They also used fMRI to analyze brain activity, in an experiment with 66 male volunteers, half of whom had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition.

The scientists were most interested in that vMPFC part of the brain (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), known to be active when people think about themselves.  “This area is like a self-relevance detector, since it typically responds most to information that is self-relevant,” Lombardo says.  What did they find when Lombardo asked the volunteers to make judgments, either about their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, or physical characteristics, or, conversely, about someone else’s, namely Queen Elizabeth I?  Could the researchers visualize differences in brain activity, by fMRI, between those with and without autism?

Lombardo and his team concluded that this area of the brain was more active when typical volunteers were asked questions about themselves compared to when they were thinking about the Queen.  However, in adults with autism, this brain region responded equally, regardless of whether they were thinking about themselves or about the Queen.
“This new study shows that within the autistic brain,” said Lombardo, “regions that typically prefer self-relevant information make no distinction between thinking about the self or another person.  This is strong evidence that in the autistic brain, processing information about the self is atypical.”

What’s the difference between the “normal” child’s and adult’s brain in this regard? For the most part, activity in the “social brain” of these children was quite similar to the patterns previously analyzed in adults.  However, one of the brain region, the right temporoparietal junction, seemed to narrow its function between the ages of 6 and 11.  At age 6, that brain region played a general role in thinking about people.  By 11 years of age, this same brain region switched to a more specialized role in thinking just about others’ thoughts.  So what is special about the introspection of our own thoughts?

Traditionally, psychologists, philosophers, AI programmers and artists have disagreed about how it is that humans make frequent, often accurate, inferences about others’ thoughts and feelings.  Some have theorized that to develop this “Theory of Mind” we mostly use aspects of our own experience to model the thoughts of others.  The rival theory hypothesizes that we acquire a knowledge base from observations and articulated societal rules which guide our understanding of others’ inferred mental states.

One research team at Harvard is attempting a synthesis, positing that both processes are used, but in different contexts.  The human brain may only use its introspection about itself as a basis for understanding others, at least when we have reason to believe our own minds and experiences are sufficiently similar to those of the other person.  But when the other person is perceived as truly “other” — then different mechanisms are in play.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning, researchers led by Adrianna Jenkins, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, found that the region of the brain associated with introspective thought is also accessed when inferring the thoughts of other people who are similar to oneself. However, this is not the case when considering those who are different politically, socially, or religiously.

“Our research helps to explain how and when people draw on their own inner experiences to make inferences about the experiences of others,” says Jenkins.  “The findings suggest that the part of the brain that is responsible for introspection also helps us to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.  But this primarily seems to be the case for people who we perceive to be similar to ourselves.”

The Other in Science Fiction

This might explain a great deal about prejudice, politics, and the fascination of “the other” in literature — particularly in science fiction, where “the other” is extrapolated to extraterrestrials, robots, or androids, as well as in fantasy where “the other” is examined as god, ghost, vampire, werewolf, fairy, or monster.  The two branches of literature combine in what I call “Hard Science Fantasy” — as in the essential Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein.  Today, this as viewed as an important early work raising transhumanist issues.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818, was seen in its time as a strange variation on the popular Gothic Novel genre, is credited by noted author and critic Brian Aldiss as the first modern science fiction novel.  We know that Mary Shelley had been reading scientific reports from Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, the Italian physicist known especially for the development of the first electric cell in 1800, and from Luigi Galvani who, in 1786, noticed that the leg of a skinned frog, accidentally touched by a scalpel which had lain near an electrical machine, was thrown into violent convulsions.  From this, the great writer extrapolated a being sewn together from human corpses and re-animated by electricity.  If we accept that Frankenstein was the first modern science fiction novel then we see that the science fiction genre itself springs directly from the ancestral genre of Hard Science Fantasy.

Late 20th century and early 21st century literary analysis imagined — falsely from the viewpoint of the revolutionary H+ paradigm that may take most of the 21st Century to become dominant — that the extremes of imaginative literature were hard science fiction on the ultraviolet end of the spectrum (fluorescing so brightly that you need to wear mirrorshades), and transcendental works of fantasy, including high fantasy, horror, and gothic, were at the infrared end of the spectrum (stirring rough beasts in the melting glacial ice).

In fact, this false dichotomy is obliterated by recognizing that both of the alleged extremes descended from a common ancestor (just as Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis diverged over hundreds of thousands of years from a mutual ancestor, back when multiple species of people roamed the Earth), and that ancestor includes works of literature which are canonical, not just in any genre, but in the culture of the global community for centuries.

Outside the pages of novels, and the television and motion picture screen, the disagreement over twitching electrified frogs legs had a tragic ending.  As reported in a biography on NNBD, “In Galvani’s view the motions of the muscle were the result of the union, by means of the metallic arc, of its exterior or negative electrical charge with positive electricity which proceeded along the nerve from its inner substance.  Alessandro Volta, on the other hand, attributed them solely to the effect of electricity having its source in the junction of the two dissimilar metals of the arc, and regarded the nerve and muscle simply as conductors.  On Galvani’s refusal, from religious scruples, to take the oath of allegiance to the Cisalpine republic in 1797, he was removed from his professorship.  Deprived thus of the means of livelihood, he retired to the house of his brother Giacomo, where he soon fell into a feverish decline.  The republican government, in consideration of his great scientific fame, eventually, but too late, determined to reinstate him in his chair, and he died at Bologna on the 4th of December 1798.”

Perceiving Self or “Other”

Getting back to how we perceive ourselves, versus the “other” — Adrianna Jenkins et al tested whether individuals are more likely to access the self-referential region of the brain when contemplating the inferred thoughts of a similar person as opposed to someone they would consider different.  They used fMRI scans to examine brain activity when individuals were asked about their thoughts or feelings regarding an everyday experience, and what they imagine that another person might think or feel about a similar everyday experience.  The study provides some insights into modern politics.

At the beginning of the study, the subjects, 13 students, both graduate and undergraduate, from colleges and universities in the Boston area, were shown photographs of two unfamiliar individuals.  The subjects were screened for their declared political positions, from a short list of choices presented.  (It appears that Jenkins studied only self-described liberal social and political biases in this analysis.)  Then they were read a brief descriptive paragraph about each person in the snapshots.  One person was described as a student at a college in the Northeast, with liberal political and social attitudes and the other as a conservative, fundamentalist Christian at a large university in the Midwest.

The 13 students were then asked a series of questions about their own thoughts and feelings, as well as the inferred thoughts or feelings of the liberal or conservative individual.  “How much do you enjoy doing crossword puzzles?” or, “How likely is it that he would get frustrated while sitting in traffic?”  Measuring the brain’s activity in the vMPFC allowed Jenkins and her colleagues to see that that the students used a similar thought process when considering their own reactions to the questions, and the reactions of the individual that was identified as a liberal college student in the Northeast.  But the researchers did not see similar activity in this region of the brain when the subjects were considering the thoughts and preferences of the conservative, midwestern students.

Jenkins concluded that it’s possible that we rely on our own perspective to assess the potential thoughts and feelings of people whom we imagine are similar, while we make inferences regarding the thoughts of those considered dissimilar using a different mental process.

Where will this research lead?

Daniel Ames, another professor of psychology at Harvard, plus Jenkins, Mitchell and Mahzarin Banaji, are completing a study to be published in Psychological Science, to determine whether or not the application of this self-referential thought process is immutable.  This newer study had subjects write a short essay from the perspective of another person.  They found that when an individual assumes another’s perspective, he or she is more likely to later use the vMPFC region of the brain.

One of the four aspects of “Humaniqueness” — a term popularized by the controversial Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds and other books and a Professor of Psychology, Human Evolutionary Biology, and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University — is generative computation.  This combines two types of operations: (a) recursion and (b) the combinatorial; as applied to arrangements of words, notes, actions, or strings of mathematical symbols (which overall resembles Noam Chomsky’s demolition of Stimulus-Response Behaviorism as applied to Language).  Hauser suggests that, in evolution by natural selection of the human brain, somewhere between 800,000 and 45,000 years ago [Meindl, 1992], this represents “release of recursion from its motor prison.” [Jeannerod, 1995].

According to Noam Chomsky, without generative grammar, there can be only a finite state automaton (FSA) with a fixed repertoire of stimulus-response possibilities, and no capability to develop anything “outside the box” of what is pre-programmed.  How can we, in a reasonable time, with sufficient reliability, exclude the model of a specific human, or humanity in general, and establish that humans are, like Turing machines, capable of any possible output behavior?

If all four “Humaniqueness” aspects are missing, then by Marc Hauser’s classification, the human is not human, but merely an animal.  This article is too short for the fascinating discussion of how fuzzy the lines are between human and animal thought in extreme cases, as Hauser also briefly considers such arguments.  “Only by working out which capacities we share with other animals and which are ours alone can scientists hope to piece together the story of how our humaniqueness came to be.”  Hauser also considers the sizes of brains, in a way which is roughly parallel to Crick and Koch’s “Neural Correlates of Consciousness” [Chalmers, 2000]; [Noë, 2004 ab] and a hypothesized minimal size/complexity for any substrate for thought or consciousness: “Where we differ from [other species] is in the relative size of particular regions of the cortex and how those regions connect, differences that give rise to thoughts having no analogue elsewhere in the Animal kingdom.” [Gazzaniga, 1995]

In summary:
(1) The region of the brain associated with self-introspection, the vMPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), is correlated with understanding thoughts and feelings of others.

(2) Children with autism appear to have specific difficulties thinking about other people’s thoughts.

(3) The part of the brain that is responsible for introspection also helps us to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.  But this primarily seems to be the case for people who we perceive to be similar to ourselves.

(4) “The Other” is important in politics and literature.  The question: “What does it mean to be human?” may tap into this brain function.

(5) Evolution by natural selection of the human brain, somewhere between 800,000 – 45,000 years ago may represent “release of recursion from its motor prison.”

This leaves wide open a plethora of questions about how Humanity 1.0 and Humanity 2.0 will understand each other.  We don’t know how well Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis understood each other.  But we know that they traded good and technologies, and sometimes, almost certainly, had romantic interludes whose evidence is in our genes.

So what do you think about yourself?  Your ventromedial prefrontal cortex may be the key.  Can it be reprogrammed? Perhaps, in the future, we’ll find out.


Marc D. Hauser, interview on “the edge”, “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality”, Retrieved 9 Dec 2009:


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