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A Man, a Woman, and a Light Switch - abridged from "blink the power of thinking without thinking"

The classic model for understanding what it means to lose the ability to mind- read is the condition of autism.When someone is autistic, he or she is, in the  words of the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, “mindblind.” People with  autism find it difficult, if not impossible, to do all of the things that I’ve  been describing so far as natural and automatic human processes. They have  difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions  or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from  anything other than the literal meaning of words. Their first-impression  apparatus is fundamentally disabled, and the way that people with autism see the  world gives us a very good sense of what happens when our mindreading faculties  fail.

One of the country’s leading experts on autism is a man named Ami Klin.  Klin teaches at Yale University’s Child Study Center in New Haven, where he has  a patient whom he has been studying for many years whom I’ll call Peter. Peter  is in his forties. He is highly educated and works and lives independently.  “This is a very highfunctioning individual. We meet weekly, and we talk,” Klin  explains. “He’s very articulate, but he has no intuition about things, so he  needs me to define the world for him.” Klin, who bears a striking resemblance  to the actor Martin Short, is half Israeli and half Brazilian, and he speaks  with an understandably peculiar accent. He has been seeing Peter for years, and  he speaks of his condition not with condescension or detachment but matter-of- factly, as if describing a minor character tic. “I talk to him every week, and  the sense that I have in talking to him is that I could do anything. I could  pick my nose. I could take my pants down. I could do some work here. Even though  he is looking at me, I don’t have the sense of being scrutinized or monitored.  He focuses very much on what I say. The words mean a great deal to him. But he  doesn’t focus at all on the way my words are contextualized with facial  expressions and nonverbal cues. Everything that goes on inside the mind—that he  cannot observe directly—is a problem for him. Am I his therapist? Not really.  Normal therapy is based on people’s ability to have insight into their own  motivations. But with him, insight wouldn’t take you very far. So it’s more  like problem solving.”

One of the things that Klin wanted to discover, in  talking to Peter, was how someone with his condition makes sense of the world,  so he and his colleagues devised an ingenious experiment. They decided to show  Peter a movie and then follow the direction of his eyes as he looked at the  screen. The movie they chose was the 1966 film version of the Edward Albee play  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as  a husband and wife who invite a much younger couple, played by George Segal and  Sandy Dennis, for what turns out to be an intense and grueling evening. “It’s  my favorite play ever, and I love the movie. I love Richard Burton. I love  Elizabeth Taylor,” Klin explains, and for what Klin was trying to do, the film  was perfect. People with autism are obsessed with mechanical objects, but this  was a movie that followed very much the spare, actor-focused design of the  stage. “It’s tremendously contained,” Klin says. “It’s about four people  and their minds. There are very few inanimate details in that movie that would  be distracting to someone with autism. If I had used Terminator Two, where the  protagonist is a gun, I wouldn’t have got those results. It’s all about  intensive, engaging social interaction at multiple levels of meaning, emotion,  and expression. What we are trying to get at is people’s search for meaning. So  that’s why I chose Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was interested in getting  to see the world through the eyes of an autistic person.”

Klin had Peter put on  a hat with a very simple, but powerful, eye-tracking device composed of two tiny  cameras. One camera recorded the movement of Peter’s fovea—the centerpiece of  his eye. The other camera recorded whatever it was Peter was looking at, and  then the two images were superimposed. This meant that on every frame of the  movie, Klin could draw a line showing where Peter was looking at that moment. He  then had people without autism watch the movie as well, and he compared Peter’s  eye movements with theirs. In one scene, for example, Nick (George Segal) is  making polite conversation, and he points to the wall of host George’s (Richard  Burton’s) study and asks, “Who did the painting?” The way you and I would  look at that scene is straightforward: our eyes would follow in the direction  that Nick is pointing, alight on the painting, swivel back to George’s eyes to  get his response, and then return to Nick’s face, to see how he reacts to the  answer. All of that takes place in a fraction of a second, and on Klin’s  visual-scanning pictures, the line representing the gaze of the normal viewer  forms a clean, straight-edged triangle from Nick to the painting to George and  back again to Nick. Peter’s pattern, though, is a little different. He starts  somewhere around Nick’s neck. But he doesn’t follow the direction of Nick’s  arm, because interpreting a pointing gesture requires, if you think about it,  that you instantaneously inhabit the mind of the person doing the pointing. You  need to read the mind of the pointer, and, of course, people with autism can’t  read minds. “Children respond to pointing gestures by the time they are twelve  months old,” Klin said. “This is a man who is forty-two years old and very  bright, and he’s not doing that. Those are the kinds of cues that children are  learning naturally—and he just doesn’t pick up on them.”

So what does Peter  do? He hears the words “painting” and “wall,” so he looks for paintings on  the wall. But there are three in the general vicinity. Which one is it? Klin’s  visual-scanning pictures show Peter’s gaze moving frantically from one picture  to the other. Meanwhile, the conversation has already moved on. The only way  Peter could have made sense of that scene is if Nick had been perfectly,  verbally explicit—if he had said, “Who did that painting to the left of the  man and the dog?” In anything less than a perfectly literal environment, the  autistic person is lost.

There’s another critical lesson in that scene. The  normal viewers looked at the eyes of George and Nick when they were talking, and  they did that because when people talk, we listen to their words and watch their  eyes in order to pick up on all those expressive nuances that Ekman has so  carefully catalogued. But Peter didn’t look at anyone’s eyes in that scene. At  another critical moment in the movie, when, in fact, George and Martha  (Elizabeth Taylor) are locked in a passionate embrace, Peter looked not at the  eyes of the kissing couple—which is what you or I would do—but at the light  switch on the wall behind them. That’s not because Peter objects to people or  finds the notion of intimacy repulsive. It’s because if you cannot mind- read—if you can’t put yourself in the mind of someone else—then there’s  nothing special to be gained by looking at eyes and faces.

One of Klin’s  colleagues at Yale, Robert T. Schultz, once did an experiment with what is  called an FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery), a highly sophisticated  brain scanner that shows where the blood is flowing in the brain at any given  time—and hence, which part of the brain is in use. Schultz put people in the  FMRI machine and had them perform a very simple task in which they were given  either pairs of faces or pairs of objects (such as chairs or hammers) and they  had to press a button indicating whether the pairs were the same or different.  Normal people, when they were looking at the faces, used a part of their brain  called the fusiform gyrus, which is an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain  software that allows us to distinguish among the literally thousands of faces  that we know. (Picture in your mind the face of Marilyn Monroe. Ready? You just  used your fusiform gyrus.) When the normal participants looked at the chair,  however, they used a completely different and less powerful part of the  brain—the inferior temporal gyrus—which is normally reserved for objects. (The  difference in the sophistication of those two regions explains why you can  recognize Sally from the eighth grade forty years later but have trouble picking  out your bag on the airport luggage carousel.) When Schultz repeated the  experiment with autistic people, however, he found that they used their object- recognition area for both the chairs and the faces. In other words, on the most  basic neurological level, for someone with autism, a face is just another  object. Here is one of the earliest de      script      ions of an autistic patient in the  medical literature: “He never looked up at people’s faces. When he had any  dealings with persons at all, he treated them, or rather parts of them, as if  they were objects. He would use a hand to lead him. He would, in playing, butt  his head against his mother as at other times he did against a pillow. He  allowed his boarding mother’s hand to dress him, paying not the slightest  attention to her.”

So, when Peter looked at the scene of Martha and George  kissing, their two faces did not automatically command his attention. What he  saw were three objects—a man, a woman, and a light switch. And what did he  prefer? As it happens, the light switch. “I know for [Peter] that light  switches have been important in his life,” says Klin. “He sees a light switch,  and he gravitates toward it. It’s like if you were a Matisse connoisseur, and  you look at a lot of pictures, and then you’d go, ahh, there is the Matisse. So  he goes, there is the light switch. He’s seeking meaning, organization. He  doesn’t like confusion. All of us gravitate toward things that mean something  to us, and for most of us, that’s people. But if people don’t anchor meaning  for you, then you seek something that does.”

Perhaps the most poignant scene  Klin studied comes at a point in the movie when Martha is sitting next to Nick,  flirting outrageously, even putting a hand on his thigh. In the background, his  back slightly turned to them, lurks an increasingly angry and jealous George. As  the scene unfolds, the normal viewer’s eyes move in an almost perfect triangle  from Martha’s eyes to Nick’s eyes to George’s eyes and then back to  Martha’s, monitoring the emotional states of all three as the temperature in  the room rises. But Peter? He starts at Nick’s mouth, and then his eyes drop to  the drink in Nick’s hand, and then his gaze wanders to a brooch on Martha’s  sweater. He never looks at George at all, so the entire emotional meaning of the  scene is lost on him.

“There’s a scene where George is about to lose his  temper,” says Warren Jones, who worked with Klin on the experiment. “He goes  to the closet and pulls a gun down from the shelf, and points it directly at  Martha and pulls the trigger. And when he does, an umbrella pops out the front  of the barrel. But we have no idea until it comes out that it’s a ruse—so  there is this genuine moment of fear. And one of the most telltale things is  that the classic autistic individual will laugh out loud and find it to be this  moment of real physical comedy. They’ve missed the emotional basis for the act.  They read only the superficial aspect that he pulls the trigger, an umbrella  pops out, and they walk away thinking, those people were having a good time.”  

Peter’s movie-watching experiment is a perfect example of what happens when  mind reading fails. Peter is a highly intelligent man. He has graduate degrees  from a prestigious university. His IQ is well above normal, and Klin speaks of  him with genuine respect. But because he lacks one very basic ability—the  ability to mindread— he can be presented with that scene in Who’s Afraid of  Virginia Woolf? and come to a conclusion that is socially completely and  catastrophically wrong. Peter, understandably, makes this kind of mistake often:  he has a condition that makes him permanently mind-blind. But I can’t help but  wonder if, under certain circumstances, the rest of us could momentarily think  like Peter as well. What if it were possible for autism— for mind-blindness—to  be a temporary condition instead of a chronic one? Could that explain why  sometimes otherwise normal people come to conclusions that are completely and catastrophically wrong?


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