Essay, 8 pages (2000 words)

Theory of the mind and mental disorders

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In order to have a theory of mind, an intuitive understanding of a persons individual mind and their understanding regarding the mental states of others is a crucial factor to development. This includes the ability to think about thoughts, beliefs and intentions that an individual has made for their own reasons and thinking about the beliefs and minds of other people. According to some developmental psychologists, normally developing children have fully developed theory of minds by the age of three but are not fully aware of how to use them in the right context. Autism and Schizophrenia are both affective disorders, in which theory of mind abilities are defected, however the change in abilities differs considerably, some psychologists claim that the two disorders should be incorporated together but with the two disorders on opposite ends of a scale. This essay aims to look in more detail at theory of mind; the benefits and processes of a fully functioning set of abilities in comparison to the reduced theory of mind typically seen in individuals with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and the overactive theory of mind that can be witnessed people with Schizophrenia.

The idea for this cognitive set of abilities originated from the time of Descartes who set the foundations for considering the science of the mind. The term theory of mind (ToM) was first tested empirically in the early seventies for animal studies such as chimpanzees. As time went on psychologists became more interested in looking at the development of ToM. Baron-Cohen discovered that by the age of seven to nine months, an infant’s comprehension of attention towards others was an essential antecedent for ToM to develop. Baron-Cohen (1995) proposed a model that depicted the maturation of ToM based on concepts of evolution; he suggested that in the early days of a childs life they selectively pay attention to specific features and learning about attention. The model proposes that a child considers the object or person as interesting and that seeing can lead to making beliefs. Attention can be focussed and shared by the infant by pointing and joint attention behaviour requires interpretation of other peoples mental states, predominantly whether the person observes an object or finds it of interest. The model goes on to claim that typically a pattern of development can be seen in normally developing children; at around eighteen months the child is able to associate the seeing of an object or person and the knowing which enables them to start pointing towards objects or people of interest. This progresses into pretend play, but it is not until a child reaches approximately four years old that they begin to understand the true concept of ToM for example distinguishing their beliefs from another persons and understanding other people have their own mental states, this is known as the first order false belief, (refBrune). By the ages of six to seven most children without any pathological, psychological or developmental disorders are capable of understanding higher order representations. This model is clearly helpful in identifying and defining ToM but it fails to represent the impact that social environment has on ToM.

The ability to attribute false beliefs have been a keep method to test infants theory of mind. For children to have this ability it is suggested that an understanding of how knowledge is formed is crucial, furthermore comprehending that peoples beliefs are founded on their knowledge and that mental states can differ from reality. Wimmer and Perner (1983) developed the first experiment that tested ToM in children. To date the most common version of the false-belief task is known as the Sally Ann task. In which the child must be able to recognize that anothers intellectual representation of the situation is unlike their own, and the child must be able to calculate behaviour based on that understanding in order to successfully pass the test. Other tasks have been developed to try to solve the problems intrinsic in the false-belief task. In the Smarties task developed by Gopnik & Astington (1988), they found that children pass this test at age four or five years, whereas autistic children may never pass.

Autism is classified an abnormal absorption with the self; marked by communication disorders and short attention span and inability to treat others as people. The theory of mind (ToM) deficit describes the complexity someone would have with these elements which are vital for the constructions of social relationships. These abstract thinking and taking things into perspective ability has also been referred to as mind-blindness. This means that individuals with a ToM impairment are in a sense egotistical in that they experience great difficulty with seeing things from any other perspective than their own. Many individuals classified as having autism seem to lack theory of mind capabilities. The correlations between autism and schizophrenia has been a keen area of research interest from many developmental psychologists and has been developed in to testing which can help with diagnosing and identifying ToM deficits and potentially autism.

One account presumes that theory of mind plays a role in the acknowledgment of mental states to others and in pretend play, which is an aspect that low functioning autistic children do not posses. As it has already been stipulated a theory of mind is the ability to mentally represent mental states of others irrespective of whether or not the conditions involved are real. This could explain autistic children show severely decreased ToM abilities and lack of a creative imagination. Static features such as identity, sense of age, levels of attractiveness, attitude formation; autistic people tend to be good at this but bad at dynamic facial, posture, mental state attributions are involved. To have a mental state attribution you must have a ToM, those dynamic features build up the big picture of what is going on in a persons mind, reading emotions in on a persons face, autistic struggle to interpret what another person is thinking. Some psychologists consider the autistic personality is an extreme variant of the male personality displaying characteristics such as lack of empathy. Stories are basic need, gives a shareable world, (Richard King, ) other peoples mind, what autistic person lacks. Imagination, creation and the ability to pretend is ability that autistic people have great difficulty if any in experiencing. Autistic people do not comprehend the meaning of perception this could be an indication of a disconnection in their mind and what the person claims ownership of.

Some researchers have emphasized that autism involves an explicit developmental delay in that children with this impairment differ in their paucities, because of the variations in individual differences. Very early detrimental failures can alter proper advancement of joint-attention behaviours, which can lead to an under developed theory of mind. Recent evidence points to the possibility that autism, ToM deficits have also been observed in schizophrenics. Pilowsky and Bassett (1980) asked patients to describe pictures of different people, it was identified that diagnosed Schizophrenics described the physical features only whereas the control group which consisted of the general public described the physical attributions but also they interpreted possible mental states from the emotional look on the faces. This would suggest that schizophrenics like Autistic people fail to consider the mental states of others.

Schizophrenia or any of the several psychotic disorders can be characterized by distortions of reality and disturbances of thought and language and withdrawal from social contact,(ref). Some schizophrenics who hear voices are aware that it is a voice coming from inside their mind. Primary features of schizophrenics and autism are both shaped by abnormalities of social cognition; various people thought there could be a unified cognitive deficit. Schizophrenia symptoms and signs can be understood as arising from impairments in processes underlining the ToM such as the ability to represent beliefs and intentions. Erroneous beliefs about the intentions of others causes a difficulty when inferring the content of others beliefs and intentions. Lesion studies carried out by Andreasen, Hoffman and Grove (1985), indentified that successful social interactions require intact frontal and temporal lobes. Chris Frith proposed that a representational belief structure requires an interaction between the posterior structures and the frontal cortex posterior structures hold representations of perceptions such as it is raining. Interaction between the frontal cortex and the posterior structures permit awareness of perceptions for example I know that it is raining and marking of representations as beliefs. Systemising features of repetitive behaviour are clearly a deficit related to autism; the need for sameness of certain characteristics. women tend to do better in empathetic situations which includes mind reading and responding. Five types of brain/personalities have been proposed, when empathising is more prevalent than systemising it can lead to psychosis and vice versa can account for an autistic trait, in which they perceive the environment in a mechanistic view.

Schizophrenia are considered as being mentalistic; in that they perceive the word from a mental point of view similarly to the empathic personality that has been described above, for example they pick up on non verbal cues that are usually perceived as negative which is a distortion and consequence of the extreme empathy over systematically Over interpret the environmental cues such a gaze intention; can be uncomfortable; displays meaning that may not be there

. Two main propositions as to why this occurred arose came from psychologist and neuroscientists; they claimed that from a biological level the brain had certain mechanisms that were designed for the social brain for example the dysfunction of the amygdala. Research carried out by Schummact (2004) found that both autism and schizophrenia are related to alternative structures and functioning of the amygdala, hippocampus and the prefrontal region; with autistic people tending to having a larger hippocampus and a defect with the amygdala which could give explanation to the avoidance of eye contact that most low functioning autistic people tend to posses.

Corpus Callosum size and brain connectivity have been found to be smaller amongst autistic individuals, (Cody 2002). A pattern of reduced connectivity can be also be seen, this is supported by the increased local and decreased global information processing which reduced central coherence and increases the bottom up relative top down processing and overall brain connectivity (Baron Cohen 2005) however other studies have reported mixed evidence of size and connectivity depending on static features such as age and gender, which consequently causes variation in the studies thus making the findings inconsistent. Connectivity in schizophrenia has no consensus amongst psychologists and researchers alike. Whalley (2002) found that an increase in connectivity towards the left parietal lobe and the left prefrontal regions was an indicator that those individuals were at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia which could be identified using electroencephalogram. Alternative evidence has been proposed in which co-activation of the inner speech and language is said to be displayed in Magnetic resonance imaging.

Frith argues that the differences between Autism and Schizophrenia are comparable to the differences between early and late acquired disorders which could account for the same underline cognitive disorders being manifested in different ways and would be consistent with different aetiologies in the two groups.

Autism can be described as impoverish comprehension of the mental states of other people whereas people with schizophrenia are more likely to have distortions; over elaborations regarding other peoples mental states and/or a dysfunctional conception of ones own mental state. Schizophrenia being the over developed mentalistic brain and autism as the underdeveloped mechanistic brain, (Badcock 1995). Symptoms of autism can be seen as deficits of functions such as gaze control, (Baron-Cohen 1995) whereas Schizophrenia is represented as hyper mentalism. Both autism and schizophrenia share certain traits which appear to support Badcocks notion of a unified concept, one of these traits being hypersensitivity towards external stimuli but with autism the sensitivity appears to be more directed at noise, which can sound louder and more clearer to the autistic mind, but schizophrenics become oversensitive towards the mental states of others and often have distorted perspectives which could lead to obsessions and paranoia.

In conclusion it is evident that both autism and schizophrenia are characterised as having extreme cases of a unified condition. A magnitude of research has been carried out on ToM in autism but not as much in Schizophrenia. ToM give insight to the areas that are most difficult for both autistic and schizophrenic patients struggle with. The mechanistic Vs mentalistic hypothetical construct is a useful visualisation as to why the two disorders are both characterised as ToM deficits but on alternative ends of the scale.

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