I work with a lot of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the context of family therapy. One client of mine will sometimes say something pretty innocuous and then suddenly get worried. He looks at me anxiously, trying to read my expression. He asks me “Are you mad? Did I do something wrong?” He feels like the world is filled with unexpected land-mines. Social situations seem to follow weird rules that everyone but him knows intuitively. People often get angry at him for mysterious reasons, so I might as well. This is pretty common for people with ASDs. They have a tougher time with something called “mentalizing,” which means understanding that other people have different mental states -- knowledge, thoughts and feelings -- than themselves. (I wrote in a previous piece about Theory of Mind, which is very similar to mentalizing. There is a great video demonstrating what this looks like in kids.) People with ASDs can find it really hard to figure out what those other mental states might be, based on cues that most of us read without thinking about it much like tone of voice, facial expression or posture.
Some neuroscientists think that the neurology of people with ASDs is different from other people, that they may have fewer 'mirror neurons,' neurons that are thought to help with connecting to another's experiences on a totally unconscious, physiological basis. Prominent among these is VS Ramachandran, who, in addition to being one of the foremost neuroscientists today, and an interesting philosophical mind, has maybe the coolest accent of anyone I have ever heard speak.
Mirror neurons are pretty spectacular according to Ramachandran, but others dissent. One of the biggest doses of cold rain on the mirror neuron parade is the fact that we lack clear evidence that they exist in humans.
Whatever the reason, people with ASDs do really poorly on a relatively new test for reading social cues called the Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition or MASC. MASC is a really neat psychology test that lacks the flash of fMRIs but actually quantifies people's understanding of social situations very well. The subject is shown a video of a social situation and asked a series of true or false questions about the mental states of the people in the video. What is really interesting to me is what researchers have found out about people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) when they take the MASC test.
Among other things, BPD is characterized by very conflictual interpersonal relationships. This great animation outlines some of the things that go on for people with BPD and the criteria for diagnosis.
People with BPD do very poorly on the MASC test but for almost exactly the opposite reason than people with ASDs. While people with ASDs tend to mentalize poorly -- that is to consider and evaluate correctly the inner experiences of the people in the video -- people with BPD tend to “hypermentalize.” They are very tuned in to the mental states of others, perhaps too tuned in. Some research indicates that people with BPD may actually be better at correctly “reading” other people's emotional states based on limited information than non-BPD people. But like many people with ASD, people with BPD can find the social environment confusing and overwhelming, not because they have too little information to understand what is happening, but too much. I suspect they are also lopsided because their hypermentalizing often tends towards the negative; that is they read negative cues very clearly but positive cues get less focus.
Think about how many quick, frustrated glances or disapproving sighs a person might encounter in the social landscape in a typical afternoon. People who don't have BPD may register them almost unconsciously, as subtle social cues to "hurry up", "hold on a minute" or "give me some space". Those things help most of us adjust our social behaviour. But people with BPD experience each negative micro-expression like an angry, screaming tirade leaving them as bewildered as the young boy with ASD asking, “what did I do wrong?”