The other day, the Bear, Momma Bear and I were watching a video together – Baby Einstein’s Baby da Vinci™. In one scene there is an owl, located in front of some trees, who hoots a couple of times. A second owl comes up within the trees, unseen by the first owl. The second owl hoots, and then ducks and hides, while the first owl turns towards the sound, looking for its source. The second owl appears in a different location - again unseen by the first owl - watches the first owl for a couple of seconds, and hoot and hides again. This occurs a third time, and then while the first owl is looking in the last place he heard the hoot, the second owl 'walks' up behind him, taps him on the shoulder, and they both giggle. Fade to black.
The Bear thinks this is absolutely hysterical. She giggles away, gets excited, flaps, climbs up on the table we put in front of the TV to keep her from sitting too close to the screen (sigh), giggles and flaps again, and then climbs down and walks over to Momma Bear or myself to either pull our hand or even hand us the remote to rewind the scene so that she can see the whole thing again. This is repeated over and over until she tires of it.
A subsequent scene involves two hippos. The first hippo yawns. The second hippo begins a yawn, and appears to produce a noise like an elephant’s trumpeting. Both hippos are startled. Again the first hippo yawns. The second hippo yawns, with the same elephant sound as a result, and the same sense of surprise. Then the second hippo yawns first, and yawns normally. The first hippo yawns and produces the same elephant sound. Both hippos look at each other, shake their heads, and walk away. Once they are gone, up pops an elephant, giggling and trumpeting away, pleased with its joke. Fade to black.
In this example too the Bear cracks up, and while she is not as insistent on getting us to rewind this segment to watch it again, we end up repeating the scene a few times.
I’ve also described in a previous post an example of playing peek-a-boo with the Bear, in which she clearly outsmarted me (not that you have to get up too early in the morning to accomplish this) by turning the tables and sneaking up on me.
It struck me that the common thread between these three occasions was that the Bear was able to understand the difference in perception between the various characters (in the latter case the characters being the Bear and me), i.e. that each saw the world differently, and drew humour from the differences in perception. Then it occurred to me, are these not demonstrations of Theory of Mind?
From Wikipedia, Theory of Mind is generally described as:
“a specific cognitive capacity: the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.”
“This theory of mind covers two separate concepts:
1. Gaining the understanding that others also have minds, with different and separate beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions
2. Being able to form operational hypotheses (theories), or mental models, with a degree of accuracy, as to what those beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions are.“
The Bear has very recently turned three (Happy Birthday Bear!), so I should not be surprised if she did not yet demonstrate Theory of Mind.
A common ToM test is the Sally-Ann test:
"The experimenter uses two dolls, "Sally" and "Anne." Sally has a basket; Anne has a box. Experimenters show their subjects (usually children) a simple skit, in which Sally puts a marble in her basket and then leaves the scene. While Sally is away, Anne takes the marble out of Sally's basket and puts it into her box. Sally then returns and the children are asked where they think she will look for her marble. A child is said to "pass" the test if he realizes that Sally will first look inside her basket before realizing that her marble isn't there. This is based upon their developing the notion that she "cannot watch..."
"Normal children under the age of four (emphasis added), and most autistic children (of all ages), will cheerfully and confidently answer "Anne's box"-- they do not conclude that Sally cannot know that her marble has been moved."
"Children who pass the test (presumably) understand that there are two different sets of beliefs:
• their own beliefs, based on what they have personally seen, heard, remembered, imagined, reasoned, etc., and
• the beliefs of others, based on what they have seen, heard, etc.."
Those who fail the test are said by some psychologists to lack a ‘theory of other people’s minds’, although there are problems with the test (discussed in the link) that may call this interpretation into question.
In the three examples above, does the Bear exhibit an understanding that the various characters see the world differently?
In the owl example, while she has a clear sense of excitement and anticipation, she does not react when the first owl hoots. She also does not react when the second owl repeatedly appears. It is only when the second owl hoots and hides that she really starts to laugh, suggesting – to me at least - that she clearly understands that the joke is the deception of the first owl by the second owl. She is also amused when the joke is revealed, but not as much as when the prank is being executed. To understand this scene, I’d suggest that she has to understand that the first owl has a different perception of the world than either the second owl or the viewer.
In the second example, she gets excited when the hippos appear to produce the elephant sound, and when the elephant appears, but she does not appear to have a particularly strong reaction when the elephant trumpets triumphantly (i.e. I don't think it is the elephant trumpet itself that she is reacting to). This example is a more open to question, in that she may be reacting to the incongruity of the elephant sound emanating from the hippo, but I really think she is getting the joke, that the elephant is deceiving the hippos (to whom the joke is never ultimately revealed) and that therefore the two sets of protagonists see the world quite differently.
In the third example, I’d suggest that the Bear understands that I am visibly ‘sneaking up’ on her, and by surreptitiously sneaking up on me she understands that she and I do not perceive the world in the same way. Otherwise, there would be no point in sneaking up on me because I would know that this is occurring.
So, am I overanalyzing, or is the Bear demonstrating Theory of Mind, based on the notion of ‘cannot watch’ mentioned above? If she is, then this demonstrates that a child diagnostically labeled as ‘autism, at the severe end of the spectrum’ is capable of Theory of Mind, and at a young age. Given that 'normal' children don’t usually pass the Sally-Anne test until four (which may be an issue with the test as much as with their cognitive abilities), this would be an interesting result.
If she is not yet demonstrating Theory of Mind in these examples, I would not interpret this as meaning that she is not capable of this ability and/or would not be capable of demonstrating it in the future. Any issues she, and other autistics, demonstrate in this area could presumably be related to sensory integration issues as much or more than due to cognitive weaknesses. If one has difficulty processing incoming stimuli, especially input from other peoples’ faces, then it stands to reason that the ability to analyze the expressions of others - as cues to their state of mind - may be impacted long before this ability fails at a cognitive hurdle.
Those are my thoughts. I’m interested in hearing yours.