Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Neurotypical Mental and Emotional Handicaps (Part I)
Here is a wonderful satirical website, the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT), devoted to the study of neurotypicals as mentally handicapped. The author of the website heaps particular scorn on the notion that people on the spectrum are emotionally flat and lack a "theory of mind." I have been meaning to write about this issue, particularly of this theory of the mind claim, for some time so I thought I would take the opportunity here to do so. My friends Melanie and Noranne pointed me to this site so this post is dedicated to them.
I would hope that readers of this blog would have long come to appreciate that, while I may be an Asperger, I do have emotions. I am hardly a cold-blooded calculating machine; even my more academic writing breaths with a sense of humor and a strong sense of the personality behind it. That being said, there is something different as to my emotions and one could make a good case that it might be useful to find a different word to describe my "emotional" self. The notion of a "theory of mind" is that other minds are different from my own and that what applies to me does not apply to other people. For example, I love talking about Early Modern religion wars almost as much as I like talking about my ultimate favorite topic, myself, and can go on about these topics for an hour at a time easily. Since I do not read facial expressions very well, I have a difficult time telling when people become bored with this topic. Perhaps, some might argue, I cannot even comprehend how something that so interests me could fail to at least grab the attention of others.
I would make the case for turning the rhetorical tables against neurotypicals and argue that, on the contrary to the usual charge, it is neurotypicals who lack a theory of the mind. I would describe myself as living in a Cartesian universe. Firstly because the idea of sitting in front of the fire, (or in my case my modern electric heater) wondering about issues like whether God exists, whether I am the victim of some illusion creating demon (perhaps the Matrix) or whether I am a figment of my own imagination comes naturally to me. To me, these are important issues to be taken seriously and not to be put aside in favor of "living." Second, and more importantly, I am conscious of myself as a mind floating in a metaphysical universe hemmed in by other minds which I do not comprehend. Much of my mental energy is devoted to contemplating these other minds, theorizing about them and ultimately coming to terms with the fact that I do not understand these other minds. (Confirming one's ignorance is a worthwhile task. It is not enough to know that you are ignorant about things in general. You need to have a clear idea as to what you are ignorant about.) I do not understand other minds nor do I make any pretense to. I recognize that everyone has their own little universe that is incomprehensible to everyone else.
A somewhat counter-intuitive result of this is that I am an almost fanatical rationalist. Reason, as the shared heritage of all non-mentally handicapped people, is the only thing that can navigate the metaphysical ether between minds; it is the one product of the mind that can be understood by another. As such, for all intents and purposes, it is the one thing that can be viewed as meaningful. You live in your own self-contained mind, its own metaphysical universe containing thoughts, personality, and emotions. (My atheist Asperger friends would tell me that there is no mind; that it is just an illusion created by the brain. To be clear, I am talking here about the perception of mind, not any metaphysical reality.) I grant you that all of these things are real. The problem is that these things do not translate into my self-contained mind, in its own metaphysical universe. I do not understand these things and cannot take them into account beyond recognizing their existence as a sort of metaphysical black hole. As such your personal qualities while real, for all intents and purpose, might as well not exist. You have no reason to expect that I would understand the non-rational parts of your mind. Therefore, there is no reason to expect me to take it into account. The only thing that you have that can be meaningful to me as it is to you is your reason.
(To be continued …)