Academic journal article PSYART

Mindblindness Theory: Touchstone for Interdisciplinarity

Academic journal article PSYART

Mindblindness Theory: Touchstone for Interdisciplinarity

Article excerpt

The DSM-IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual), published in 1994, was the first of its kind to codify Asperger syndrome, a diagnosis for high-functioning autistic children. It sparked dialogue about the classification, diagnosis, and culture of mental illness. Since that publication, Asperger syndrome was subsumed under the heading Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-V (2013). In the last twenty years autism diagnoses have proliferated and neuroscience has come to the forefront of making autism research a visible phenomenon. Neuroscientists commonly use Functional Magnetic Resonance (fMRI) scans to reveal differences between autistic and normal brain functions. Due to the prevalence of these discussions, autism has become a cultural phenomenon argued about in scientific and non-scientific circles.

One of the most controversial theories of autism over the last twenty years is mindblindness (Baron-Cohen 200). This theory states that autistic children fail to read minds and intentions of others in "false belief" tests (Baron-Cohen 201)[1] Mindblindness raises the specter of evolutionary defects, alienation, and misapplication among its critics. As such, much of the discussion of mindblindness falls outside the bailiwick of pure neuroscience.

Mindblindness is interesting to discuss because many disciplines now comment on its impact. While it started out a neuroscientific theory, it has expanded to other areas. Commentators and scholars in psychology (Gray), philosophy and religion (Aminoff), and cultural studies (Bombaci) have also weighed in on the phenomenon, often reflecting it as a metaphor for some greater human communication issue. They borrow information from the original neuroscience research in order to make their comments in their own respective disciplines. In some ways this is an aspect of interdisciplinarity, albeit not a direct sharing of research between neuroscience and the humanities and social sciences.

The idea of interdisciplinarity has a long history in the academy. Giles Gunn says that Greek historians and dramatists took elements from other realms of knowledge (such as medicine or philosophy) to further understand their own material (142). Julie Thompson Klein attests that "the roots of the concepts lie in a number of ideas that resonate through modern discourse-the ideas of a unified science, general knowledge, synthesis and the integration of knowledge" (17). Interdisciplinarity is the movement towards dialogue and co-creation of knowledge domains in multiple fields (Augsburg 10).

While powerful in theory, there are some issues with the idea of interdisciplinarity in practice. For one, since there is a blending of disciplinary approaches to a particular problem, this necessitates competence in both disciplines, often unattainable. For example, with respect to autism studies, knowledge of neuroscience as well as philosophy or literary studies might be needed when discussing the rhetoric of mindblindness. This proves difficult in collaborations. Also, there is a concern that interdisciplinary work might lack rigor because of the limits of specialized knowledge, which in turn would undermine the empiricist notions of good science. Yet it is still fruitful to examine some of the major interdisciplinary dialogues prompting potentially valuable scholarship on the idea of mindblindness, because mindblindness has proved incredibly resilient in terms of collaboration and continued cultural dialogue.

Interdisciplinary mindblindness dialogue falls into three major categories. First, there is an aspect of interdisciplinarity within neuroscience itself. Some neuroscientists reject Baron-Cohen's mindblindness theory in order to promote the idea of embodied simulation, where they employ the idea of mimesis or simulation, using highly rhetorical language and the core rhetorical idea of mimesis. Secondly, and perhaps the more standard interdisciplinary take, philosophers and social scientists argue against the "intellectualist" and empiricist limitations of Theory of Mind. …

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