HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL
VOLUME 15, NO.4 – 2008
ing to take into account Jill’s possible reactionstoo. When you can do this easily, it is difficult toimagine not being able to do it. But caetexticpeople can’t. As a consequence, they also havedifficulties understanding complex metaphorsbecause they mainly rely on logical thinking andrandom associations.
Leading researchers in the field of autism havealso linked the word ‘context’ to Asperger’s syn-drome. Cognitive psychologist Uta Frith, alongwith others, has put forward a theory of ‘centralcoherence’, which suggests that, when carryingout tasks, people with autism show a relativefailure to process information for context-dependent meaning.
For instance, it has beenfound that, if a high-performing person with Asperger’s syndrome is asked to retell a storywhich they have been told, they are likely tofocus intensely on the small details in it – wholesections of whatever they can recall, almost verbatim – but will completely miss the over-arching idea, meaning or metaphor. They fail toextract the main idea because they are not sens-ing context. Frith points out that, if you tell astory to someone who is not on the autistic spec-trum and ask him or her to retell it, they can in- variably give you the gist: its central meaning. Another theory to explain Asperger’s syn-drome and autism was developed by SimonBaron-Cohen, Uta Frith and their colleague Alan Leslie, while all were working at the Med-ical Research Council’s Cognitive DevelopmentUnit in London in the 1980s. It proposes thatpeople with autism lack ‘theory of mind’: what ismissing in autism is the ability to read otherpeople’s minds and, from that, to predict otherpeople’s behaviour.
As Frith describes it,“Thinking about what others think, rather thanwhat is going on in the physical world outside, isessential for engaging in complex social activitybecause it underpins our ability to cooperate andto learn from each other. Our research hasshown that theory of mind is either absent orseverely delayed in autistic individuals and thatthis can explain their difficulties in socialcommunication.”
Frith is now looking for a way to relate thetheory of central coherence to the theory of theoryof mind.We propose that the theory we areputting forward does just that and also providesa much richer view of context than the theory of central coherence. To us, central coherence andtheory of mind are limited examples of the deep-er principle we are describing, which is the crip-pling inability to see the world from multipleperspectives and to recognise how sudden changecan alter a current situation.
Examples of context blindness
A friend of Joe’s, who had Asperger’s syndrome,used to stand in front of a mirror and brush thefront of his hair, but never the back. The imagehe saw in the mirror didn’t show the back of hisevents and see them from different viewpoints.The early behaviourists believed that mammalsand birds simply responded mechanically tostimuli, but more sophisticated experiments re- vealed that there is a cognitive component in- volved in their response, which relates to priorexperience. One significant experiment demon-strated that there is a mammalian intelligencethat searches for and assesses relationships be-tween different events – some part of the brainhas reviewed the history of past experiences of asimilar kind.
Many subsequent experimentshave substantiated this finding. So, millions of years ago, mammals evolved, in effect, a bio-logical form of what computer buffs today call‘parallel processing’: a mechanism capable of gauging risk by processing multiple streams of current information, at the same time as uncon-sciously comparing similar, previous experienceswith each new one. It is something we take com-pletely for granted today but, millions of yearsago, it was the key to surviving and thriving.When we say that the profoundly disablingimpairment that runs across the whole autisticspectrum is the inability to perceive context, wemean this mammalian ability to maintainseparate streams of attention and switch effort-lessly between them to assess the relevance of each to what is currently happening. This can bedone only if the brain can dissociate: reviewwhat it knows about something it has comeacross before, while still paying attention to thatsomething in the here and now. Modern brainscientists have ascribed this function to the an-terior cingulate gyrus. As one neuroscientistputs it, “This region is active when we need con-trolled, distributed attention, such as listeningto our friend at the party while also watchingour colleague dance. It also tells us to forget bothof those people and pay close attention to theother side of the room when we sense that poten-tial combatants may start a fight.”
‘Context blindness’ – the inability to switcheasily between several foci of attention and trackthem – is clearly seen in autism (the child trans-fixed by spinning the wheels on a toy car has nosense of a car’s real purpose, for instance) but isthe most dominant manifestation of autisticbehaviour in high-achieving people with Asper-ger’s syndrome. We have therefore named it ‘cae-textia’, from the Latin
, meaning ‘blind’and
, meaning ‘context’. We are suggest-ing that caetextia is a more accurate and des-criptive term for this inability to see how one variable influences another, particularly at thehigher end of the spectrum, than the label of ‘Asperger’s syndrome’.If you can read context, it seems like the mostnatural thing in the world. You might be talkingto Maggie about something, for example, butanother part of your attention is aware that Jillis listening as well and could read implicationsinto what you are saying that you didn’t intend.So, straight away, because you have this aware-ness, you are able to alter the way you are speak-