“On the walls of the cave, only the shadows are the truth”
‑ Plato ‑
There is a fable attributed to the Chinese philosopher, Zhuāng Zǐ, entitled “The frog at the bottom of the well”, or alternatively, “Glancing at the sky from the bottom of the well”. The fable concerns a frog who, seated in a deep well, has a very limited perception of the sky and, being unable to see anything beyond his well, is not even aware that more sky or even the great ocean exists. He is content paddling in the water at the bottom of his well and cavorting around its edges, feeling very secure in the belief that this is all there is to the world, or at the very least, all that really matters.
In modern Chinese and Japanese, this has become a metaphor for a person with a naïve and limited view of the world. From an epistemological perspective, however, a frog sitting in a well describing the sky is an apt description of each and every one of us, whereby the walls of that well, which shape and delimit what we perceive, are comprised of our experiences, acquired knowledge, but perhaps most indiscernibly, our neurology. We might refer to this as a “neurocentric” view, and one that is difficult to transcend at all and impossible to transcend completely.
Thus if we are a society comprised of individuals each occupying our respective well, each of us describing the sky as we see it (mine has a cloud that looks a bit like a pony), our engagement with one another in a collaborative effort to define a shared reality by calling out our individual perceptions creates a separate and non-experienced, but cognitively grasped understanding of the sky that we presume is more or less shared, and that serves a pragmatic function of forging a linguistic and cognitive bond between us.
Presuming that all of our wells are unobstructed, are built vertically in more or less the same geographic location, and open upward towards the sky, variations in our experience of the sky will not be so great as to make communication between us difficult.
But what happens if someone’s well does not conform to these shared characteristics, and instead, the walls – our neurology – give us a horizontal view out to the sea? Or are covered by a winch and roof? Or are located at a significant distance where the weather is very different? This is the situation for those who have conditions that make them neurodiverse: when someone is autistic, for example, and has a vastly different sensory experience, takes in very different quantities and kinds of information, organizes that information using very different cognitive structures and communicates that information differently.
And this brings us to cognitive empathy or theory of mind, which is posited as the ability to know what another person is thinking or feeling. We cannot really know what another person is thinking or feeling – instead, we can talk about what we are thinking and feeling, and compare one another’s descriptions of thoughts and feelings against our own experience. In semiotic theory, Wittgenstein addresses this within his private language argument, and specifically his Beetle in a Box thought experiment, in which he attempted to describe how we feel our own pain and only our own pain, but must arrive at a shared concept of pain, since language can only be coherent if it is mutually comprehensible.
In brief, each person has a box containing a beetle, however no individual can see the beetle in anyone else’s box, and each individual can only experience the beetle in his or her own box. Thus the only pain (joy, fear etc.) you can know is your own. Nevertheless, we talk about beetles as though we all know what a beetle is because pragmatically speaking, the characteristics of the beetle in each box (or absence thereof) is irrelevant to the real goal, which is arriving at an agreement that meaning is shared and therefore that language is cohesive and can be used to bind us socially and negotiate amongst ourselves.
We can speak about the shared value of beetles, the utility of beetles, the dangers of beetles, all without ever needing to verify the existence of or relative qualities of each individual beetle, a beetle being a metaphor for an abstract concept or an experience such as pain, joy, fear, love, etc. that cannot be shared, language thus consisting, to a large extent, of beetles in boxes, as it were.
Thus we mediate our experiences through language, and theory of mind cannot be a sharing of experience, but rather, must be a shared, pragmatic use of language (including both verbal and non-verbal communication) based on assumptions that, despite any parametric differences, our neurological structure, and hence experiences, must be more or less the same. As such, if persons with a typical neurological structure interact and wish to understand what the other is thinking or feeling, considering what they themselves would be thinking or feeling will be sufficient to allow them to arrive at a linguistic (verbal and/or nonverbal) expression of that experience that both subjects agree adequately reflects both their respective individual experience, and a presumably shared experience.
Theory of mind is declared the native domain of neurotypicals; a kind of transcendent ability that is regarded the basis for communication and, in more inflated estimations, is celebrated as the very thing that defines us as human. A lack of theory of mind, or “mind-blindness”, on the other hand, is attributed to autistics as a kind of deficit. This supposed deficit is expressed as a lack of empathy on the part of autistics, sometimes carefully parsed as a lack of cognitive empathy (the ability to know what another person is thinking/feeling), but far too often, sloppily conflated with a lack of affective empathy (the ability to feel compassion for another person).
And in pragmatic terms, autistics are indeed frequently unable to discern or know what another person might be thinking, while a neurotypical person is often able to discern what another neurotypical person might be thinking or feeling. As I have noted in previous entries in this blog, this works between two neurotpicals, not because they have insight into the thoughts or feelings of other people, but because there is a statistical likelihood that they would be thinking or feeling the same thing. They are sitting in adjacent wells, describing bits of sky that share the same cloud. Or we might say that their individual experiences of their respective beetles are similar enough that the value, utility and dangers associated with those beetles correspond sufficiently to prevent disrupting the perception that meaning, but also experience, is shared.
More than that, neurotypicals being predisposed to organize the world according to social interaction and normative social convention rather than by systematizing large quantities of discrete sensory data using logic (the domain of the autistic), neurotypicals blur the lines between the privately experienced beetle and the pragmatic, shared representation of a beetle and declare all beetles in all boxes identical. Their non-reflective embrace of the notion of theory of mind is, unto itself, a kind of mind blindness: a blindness to the reality that no one can ever know what the beetle in someone else’s box is like and that, for some, a highly divergent neurological structure means that they cannot participate in the language game by which meaning is forged in social interaction.
And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.
Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.
A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.
Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.
As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.
Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.
This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.
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