Friday, June 01, 2012

Two Types of Cognitive Empathy

"I want to point out that the definition of cognitive empathy being used in Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright’s paper is quite different from the one that I have been using for some time. In my understanding, cognitive empathy has to do with being able to read nonverbal cues (body language, facial expressions, the expressions in the eyes, and so on) in order to intuitively “tune in” to what another person is thinking or feeling. I have not been using it simply to cover being able to see things from another person’s perspective or to understand the other person’s mental state."
Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg - A Critique of the Empathy Quotient (EQ) Test

This quote made me think of something I've sort of been implicitly aware of, but not explicitly verbalized. The ability to read nonverbal cues, and the ability to mentally represent another person's perspective are actually conceptually distinct abilities, even though they are both common difficulties among autistic people.

Rachel goes on to say that she has difficulty reading nonverbal cues, but doesn't see herself as having difficulty imagining another person's perspective. I'm the same way. In fact, as a creative writer, my guess is that I'm, if anything, better than average at imagining other perspectives - much of my fiction requires that ability in spades. The psychology degree I'm working on also requires that skill. At the same time, I have mild, but significant, difficulty reading nonverbal cues.

Which raises the question - how many people have trouble with one skill but not the other? It's a well-known finding that most older higher functioning autistics pass first-order, and usually second-order, theory of mind tests.The usual interpretation is that autistics have a developmental delay in theory of mind, and if this delay is mild, they will eventually get it. But what if a subset of autistics have no delay in theory of mind at all? Maybe in some cases the social difficulties in autism result solely from nonverbal communication problems, with no higher-order cognitive deficit involved.

Another group who often show delayed theory of mind are deaf people. Typically, Deaf of Deaf have no delays in this skill. Deaf people raised by hearing people but exposed to signing at a young age show a delay of a year or two, oral deaf show more serious delays, and deaf who were first exposed to any language at a late age show severe delays or may never learn theory of mind. Some people have criticized this research by pointing out that standard theory of mind tests are linguistically complex and may be failed simply based on language problems, and indeed deaf people tend to do better on less verbal forms of the tests, but they still show this pattern. In contrast, most deaf people, regardless of language exposure, are acutely aware and responsive to nonverbal cues, supporting a dissociation between the two skills.

But yet, they're still correlated. The majority of autistic people show some degree of difficulty in both theory of mind and understanding nonverbal cues. So why are they linked?

The research on deaf people suggests an explanation: communication problems, in the absence of any cognitive impairment, can be enough to produce delays in theory of mind. How best to learn how other minds work than to hear it from the source? Information relevant for theory of mind can be readily accessed by verbal cues (eg Anne saying 'I think my ball is in the basket' when the child saw Sally move it to the box). It can also be accessed by nonverbal cues, such as Anne looking surprised when she checks the basket and finds nothing there.

Maybe in some cases, a severe difficulty reading nonverbal cues can, like a linguistically deprived environment, result in theory of mind issues simply because the child finds it difficult to gather enough information about how other people see the world.

Furthermore, if these are distinct skills, then what would be some higher-level theory of mind tests, more suitable for adults with mild difficulties? Maybe ask the person to try to get into the head of a person with a very different perspective to theirs - for example, can they imagine what it would be like to live in the 1600s? Or to portray the viewpoint of someone who disagrees with them on a strongly-held belief, like asking me to put myself in the head of a pro-choice person, or a homophobic person. Research should be done into how these abilities relate to autism, to verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and to the standard theory of mind tests.

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