Monday, December 12, 2022

Autism attenuates the perception of the mind-body divide

A fascinating piece of work from Berent et al.:  


Across cultures, people consider the mind as ethereal, distinct from the body. But whether Dualism arises only from culture (nurture) or also spontaneously (from human nature) is unknown. To address this question, here, we turn to autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—a congenital disorder that compromises intuitive reasoning about the minds of others (theory of mind, ToM). If ToM promotes Dualist reasoning, then Dualist reasoning ought to be attenuated in ASD. Our results show that, compared to controls, people with ASD are more likely to view bodies and minds alike (in line with Physicalism). Moreover, a Physicalist stance is linked to difficulties with ToM. These results shed light on ASD and on the mind-body distinction in humans.
People are intuitive Dualists—they tacitly consider the mind as ethereal, distinct from the body. Here we ask whether Dualism emerges naturally from the conflicting core principles that guide reasoning about objects, on the one hand, and about the minds of agents (theory of mind, ToM), on the other. To address this question, we explore Dualist reasoning in autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—a congenital disorder known to compromise ToM. If Dualism arises from ToM, then ASD ought to attenuate Dualism and promote Physicalism. In line with this prediction, Experiment 1 shows that, compared to controls, people with ASD are more likely to view psychological traits as embodied—as likely to manifest in a replica of one’s body. Experiment 2 demonstrates that, unlike controls, people with ASD do not consider thoughts as disembodied—as persistent in the afterlife (upon the body’s demise). If ASD promotes the perception of the psyche as embodied, and if (per Essentialism) embodiment suggests innateness, then ASD should further promote Nativism—this bias is shown in Experiment 3. Finally, Experiment 4 demonstrates that, in neurotypical (NT) participants, difficulties with ToM correlate with Physicalism. These results are the first to show that ASD attenuates Dualist reasoning and to link Dualism to ToM. These conclusions suggest that the mind-body distinction might be natural for people to entertain.

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