Journey to the middle of the brain

April 30, 1999

The problem with autism, Francesca Happe tells Alison Goddard, is that it stops you reading minds

While millions sit glued to the latest plot twist in EastEnders, people with autism are left completely cold. For these people, following a TV soap requires as much effort as doing mental arithmetic.

Francesca Happe of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, notes that people with autism struggle to cope with such social intrigue because they are incapable of reading people's minds.

"Young children who are not autistic quickly understand that other people have minds," Happe says. "They will point at things just for the joy of sharing information and they will keep pointing until you look. It is a precocious virtue and we take it for granted.

"At about the age of three or four, the normal child develops the ability to tell lies," she adds. "They realise that people have different thoughts and that they can know something that mummy doesn't. At that age, children love stories like Little Red Riding Hood. Why would Little Red Riding Hood get so close to the wolf? Because she thinks it is her grandmother. The pleasure comes from the contrast between what the child knows and what the character doesn't." But not for autistic children.

In last week's Royal Institution lecture, "How the brain reads the mind", Happe looked at why people with autism lack social intuition. "Autism is a biological disorder in which most individuals have low IQs and general learning difficulties," she says. "But some autistic people have high IQs and are brilliant in all sorts of respects, except reading minds."

Happe has collected extensive evidence to support the idea that humans have a mechanism in their brains that is dedicated to reading people's minds. In a bid to find those parts of the brain that are active when people are socially engaged, Happe has asked people who do not suffer from autism to sit under a brain scanner while performing mind-reading tests. Researchers have found a distinct area at the middle-front of the brain that is active only during the tests.

While it is not possible to repeat the brain scans for people with autism - they are incapable of mind-reading tasks - it is possible to test people who have a mild form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. "As adults they use a different brain region from the usual one," Happe says. "They get there, but they seem to use general reasoning."

If it is true that social intuition depends on a single dedicated part of the brain, then people who have suffered damage to this area could lose their ability to read minds.

"I did some research on people who had had a right hemisphere stroke," Happe says. "One man I interviewed referred to his wife, who was in the room, as 'that old cow'. He thought he was being funny, but he hadn't picked up the obvious signals from her that she did not find it funny at all."

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