When brilliant ideas (Simon Baron-Cohen’s) raise the consciousness of others, and spread to millions of people……becoming viral, cultural evolution takes place and people begin to understand that human survival requires global cooperation, which will only come about through deeper understanding of human behavior.
…….Joyce Hays, CEO Target Health Inc.
THE POWER OF WORDS:
‘EVIL’ INTO DEGREES OF ‘EMPATHY’
Published: June 14, 2011
This new book by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, argues that unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power. This title presents a way of understanding, that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-erosion.
Full of original research and radical ideas, this book presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals to treat others inhumanely, and challenges all of us to reconsider entirely the idea of evil.
Argues that unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power. This title presents a way of understanding that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-erosion.
The New York Times, June 14, 2011, by By KATHERINE BOUTON — “The Science of Evil,” by Simon Baron-Cohen, seems likely to antagonize the victims of evil, the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, at least a few of the dozens of researchers whose work he cites — not to mention critics of his views on evolutionary psychology or of his claims about the neurobiology of the sexes. “The Science of Evil” proposes a simple but persuasive hypothesis for a new way to think about evil.
Graphic Credit: Jonathan Rosen
Excerpt: ‘The Science of Evil’ by Simon Baron-Cohen
“My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, which might be seen as expanding on the views on empathy expressed in his 1997 book, “Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind” (Bradford). Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”).
Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, proposes that evil is more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist in tandem they result in what he calls a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms (and possibly more), borrowing from terms used in psychiatry: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).
Whereas psychiatry groups these three loosely under the term “personality disorders,” Dr. Baron-Cohen proposes that they all share the characteristic of zero degrees of empathy. (His “empathy quotient” scale is available in the book or online, with an instant numerical score that is translated into degrees of empathy from zero to six, or super empathy.)
Viewing these disorders in terms of empathy “has very different treatment implications,” he maintains. Psychopaths aside, people with low degrees of empathy can be taught empathy, as is done in schools concerned about bullying, and treated with standard psychiatric approaches.
I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist or neurobiologist, but to a lay reader there seem to be limitations in describing pathological behavior in terms of zero degrees of empathy. He cites the example of a Nazi guard who forced a boy to put a noose around his friend’s neck as “cruelty for its own sake.” But rather than zero degrees of empathy, it seems instead that the guard possessed six degrees of anti-empathy: The guard acted in the cruelest way he could think of, fully understanding how devastating the act would be to both boys.
“What leads an individual’s ‘Empathizing Mechanism’ to be set at different levels?’ ”Dr. Baron-Cohen asks. “The most immediate answer is that it depends on the functioning of a special circuit in the brain, the empathy circuit,” which he maps in great detail. (This question — and many sentences in the book — could have used an editor. Does he really mean that an individual’s empathy mechanism goes up and down? I don’t think so. I think what he’s trying to say — and in fact does say at a later point — is “What determines where an individual falls on the spectrum?”)
Further, what causes the same neurological circuitry to produce behaviors as different as Zero N, Zero P and Zero B? The dual answer is environment (extreme emotional deprivation or social pressure, as in Nazi Germany) and genes. The discussion of empathy genes is crammed with caveats and warnings: “I hope this book will not be misunderstood as arguing that empathy is wholly genetic”; “I have put quotation marks around genes for empathy”; “we examine evidence that some genes are associated with…” (italics his). The editors dispense with all this hedging and call the chapter “The Empathy Gene.” (The American publishers did the same with his caveats about the word “evil,” using it in the title. The British edition was called “Zero Degrees of Empathy.”)
In his final chapter, “Reflections on Human Cruelty,” Dr. Baron-Cohen addresses perhaps the most central question: If zero degrees of empathy is a “form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done?”
Does this hypothesis mean that there is no such thing as individual responsibility, free will? Possibly. But sensibly, Dr. Baron-Cohen finds that prison is necessary for the most serious crimes, for three reasons: to protect society, to signal disapproval and to restore some sense of justice to the victim or the victim’s family. (He does not believe in capital punishment.) For lesser crimes, though, imprisonment may not be the answer.
Finally, zero empathy is not necessarily negative. In what he acknowledges is a controversial idea, he maintains “there is at least one way in which zero degrees can be positive.” Preparing for the howl of dissent, he adds: “It seems unthinkable, but bear with me.” People with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”
My guess is that even suggesting these two conditions are related in some way will be inflammatory, though in the context of the book the discussion seems reasonable, and in no way does Dr. Baron-Cohen equate the two — except that they have in common zero degrees of empathy.
At the core of this deceptively simple book is the question of the nature of cruelty. In the last and most philosophical chapter Dr. Baron-Cohen discusses situations in which an individual who is not otherwise lacking in empathy may behave cruelly. Citing the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and discussing the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in which ordinary people exhibited cruel behavior, he acknowledges that in most of us empathy may be suspended temporarily, under certain circumstances.
This is a frightening thought, but one borne out not only by research but by history. Dr. Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis that cruelty is merely the zero end of a continuum on which we all fall makes that possibility more comprehensible.
Interview: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Science of Evil
Simon Baron-Cohen PhD, at Cambridge University
TIME.com, June 14, 2011, by Maia Szalavitz — Cambridge psychology professor and leading autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for studying the theory that a key problem in autistic disorders is “mind blindness,” difficulty understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. He’s also known for positing the “extreme male brain” concept of autism, which suggests that exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb can cause the brain to focus on systematic knowledge and patterns more than on emotions and connection with others. (Oh, and yes, he’s also the cousin of British comedian Sacha “Borat” Baron Cohen.)
Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, examines the role of empathy, the ability to understand and care bout the emotions of others, not only in autism but in conditions like psychopathy in which lack of care for others leads to antisocial and destructive behavior.
Q: What do you mean when you write about “zero negative” empathy?
A: Zero empathy refers to people at the extremely low end of the scale. They tend to be people with personality disorders, particularly antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). I focus quite a lot on psychopathy [the extreme form of ASPD] and also on two other personality disorders, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
The ‘negative’ is meant to be shorthand for this being negative for the individual but also for the people around them. It’s meant to contrast with what I call ‘zero positive’ empathy, which effectively describes the autistic spectrum.
[Autistic people] struggle with empathy just like zero negatives but it seems to be for very different reasons. I’m arguing that their low empathy is a result of a particular cognitive style, which is attentive to details and patterns or rules, which in shorthand, I call systemizing.
If we think about the autism spectrum as involving a very strong drive to systemize, that can have very positive consequences for the individual and for society. The downside is that when you try to systemize certain parts of the world like people and emotions, those sorts of phenomena are less lawful and harder to systemize. That can lead to having low empathy, almost like a byproduct of strong systemizing.
Q: How do you account for people who are both highly empathetic and highly systematic, such as some of those with Asperger’s who are actually oversensitive to the emotions of others?
A: I’ve certainly come across subgroups like that. There are people with Asperger’s whom I’ve met who certainly would be very upset to learn they’d hurt another person’s feelings. They often have very strong moral consciences and moral codes. They care about not hurting people. They may not always be aware [that they’ve said something rude or hurtful], but if it’s pointed out, they would want to do something about it.
The other side of their moral sense is that they often have a strong sense of justice or fairness. They may have arrived at it through looking for logical patterns rather than necessarily because they can easily identify with someone, however.
Q: People often think that autistic people are dangerous, like psychopaths, when they hear this idea that they have “no empathy.”
A: In a way, that was one of my motivations for writing the book. Low empathy is a characteristic of many different conditions or disorders. Often books are written where they either focus on psychopathy or autism but [not both].
We have to look at them side by side, and when we do that, we see that they are very different and it’s important to bring that out.
Q: Is it the case, then, that autistic people are not good at the “mind reading” part of empathy, in terms of predicting people’s behavior and feelings, while psychopaths are able to do that but are not able to care?
A: I think the contrast between these two conditions provides some evidence for that dissociation within empathy. People with psychopathy are very good at reading the minds of their victims. That’s probably most clearly seen in deception. You have to be good at mind reading before it would even occur to you want [to deceive someone]. So you can see the cognitive part of empathy as functioning very well, but the fact that they don’t have the appropriate emotional response to someone else’s state of mind, the feeling of wanting to alleviate distress if someone’s in pain, [that suggests that] the affective part of empathy is not functioning normally.
Q: What stunts the development of empathy in personality disorders?
A: In the book, I explore both early environmental factors and biological and genetic factors. I think it’s particularly clear in borderline personality disorder (BPD) that there’s a strong association between early environmental deprivation and neglect and abuse and later outcome of BPD. There’s an association [with abuse and trauma early in life] in psychopathy, but it’s not strong as in BPD.
Q: What defines borderline personality disorder?
A: There seems to be quite a lot of difficulty in self-regulation, in the regulation of their own emotional state. A lot of people with BPD also have depression. Many are suicidal. Many have had a history of feeling attacked or uncared for’ they are almost hypersensitive to possible threats from others.
They react almost with a hair trigger — if they perceive they are being attacked, they go on the attack. People with BPD can be so preoccupied by their own sense of not being cared for and not being understood that they can become blind to the impact of their own behavior on others.
Q: So how would you address increasing empathy in these conditions?
A: There are interesting and imaginative new approaches to treatment for empathy. Some are medications like oxytocin. Some are psychological treatments like Peter Fonagy’s work on mentalization therapy. I haven’t ever watched it done but the idea is to encourage the patient to stop and think about others’ thoughts and feelings. It’s particularly useful for BPD. When someone with that condition is mostly focusing on themselves, the therapist prompts them to take other people’s perspectives. And just through repetition and practice, people get better and better.
Q: I don’t see how that would work with psychopaths.
A: People are doing some clinical approaches with psychopaths too, like getting them to meet their victims. That’s obviously got lots of traumatic risk attached to it [for the victim], but again, it’s an exercise in perspective-taking.
I think if we take seriously the idea that behavior is the result of the brain — that having low empathy [is] the result of the way the empathy circuit is functioning or has developed — it does raise moral questions. When someone is acting with low empathy, why do we judge them as bad and punish them? It does shift the locus of where [they should be treated] philosophically, from the criminal justice system to health care.
Q: Don’t you think there are people who are actually evil, who know what they’re doing is wrong and harmful but choose to do it anyway?
A: I argue in the book that I don’t find the term evil very useful. Once you are down at zero degrees of empathy, all kinds of behavior become possible. I don’t find it scientifically useful to use that term. Empathy is a scientific term in a way that evil isn’t. You can try to localize it in the brain; you can look for which part of brain is activated. It’s normative behavior. Evil is kind of the opposite of good, I guess, but empathy, as we were talking earlier, is quantifiable and normal. You can measure it and look for it, whereas you don’t see evil in the brain.
Q: It’s argued that humans were able to evolve cooperation and altruism only by having a way to detect and punish those who didn’t cooperate.
A: I could see an evolutionary benefit for both empathy and lack of empathy too. Low empathy allows you to act selfishly, which could be in your interest, but high empathy fosters social cohesion and it’s good for the individual to end up as part of a social network.
I speculate that maybe most people end up in the middle, which may be the optimal position. It’s good to have some empathy, so at the very least you avoid offending or inadvertently hurting someone, but too much empathy might mean never completing your own projects.
Q: How does your cousin Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Borat, rate on empathy? His work can really make you cringe, but he must be excellent at mind reading to do it.
A: First of all, he and I have a family agreement that we don’t talk about each other. I respect his work. I think that sometimes that kind of comedy can create what you called a “cringe reaction,” cringing with embarrassment, but that has a purpose.
Q: Why does empathy seem especially lacking in the teen years?
A: It’s kind of interesting that parents comment on adolescence as being a low point in empathy. But there’s still quite a lot of maturation going on in the part of the brain that involves empathy during that period. There could also be hormonal factors, particularly in males with the increase in testosterone. That could change empathy levels.
I’m struck that if you look at the “terrible two’s,” kids who have tantrums when they don’t get their way, and teens, at one level it looks like very little development has gone on. There’s a transition at around age four to becoming able to apprehend that others have different perspectives. You would imagine that empathy would almost reach a peak in early childhood, but it seems to have a long protracted development.
Q: It seems to me that the terrible twos and adolescence are both the most intense periods of brain development. Could that be why empathy is impaired then?
A: That’s really interesting. I think brain maturation is one thing and also just the experience of relationships. I think that empathy has to have an environment in which to work, and that environment is relationships. Making mistakes in relationships is all part of learning to empathize.
There was an interesting study I was part of. Women who took extra testosterone were given the ‘reading the mind in eyes test.’ [The test measures how well people can read others’ emotions by looking at their eyes.] A dose of testosterone lowered scores on this test. It was one of the first demonstrations that changing testosterone levels affects your empathy.
If you’re taking an evolutionary approach, it might be very adaptive if you have to use aggression for self-defense. You’d be more effective if you didn’t have empathy getting in the way.
Q: U.S. doctor tried to treat autism by lowering testosterone levels, citing your work as justification, although he actually didn’t get the research right. He just lost his license because he was using a “chemical castration” drug on kids to do this.
A: We haven’t considering [lowering testosterone] as a treatment to study for autism. I’m not comfortable with it ethically in terms of side effects. They misquoted [our research], and cited it as evidence that there was elevated testosterone in autism when, in fact, we haven’t shown that. They presented it as if we’re endorsing it, which I’m certainly not.
It’s Not Sexist to Accept That Biology Affects Behavior
Biological determinism has been attacked for underpinning gender stereotypes but this is to misunderstand our work
Biologists investigate the differences between male and female chromosomes
By Simon Baron-Cohen PhD, Guardian.co.uk, May/June 2011 — Natasha Walter suggests women are invisible in public life because of “boxing them up into tired old stereotypes” and because of a “resurgence of biological determinism”. I totally agree we need to sweep away the tired old stereotypes and think imaginatively about how to work towards a more equal society for men and women.
However, I don’t think biological determinist theories have much to do with this issue, and rejecting biological determinism makes no sense. We don’t want to revert to the 1960s view that human behavior is purely culturally determined, since we now know that view was profoundly mistaken. No one disputes that culture is important in explaining sex differences, but it can’t be the whole story.
Men and women don’t just differ in terms of their genitalia, but in other important ways. For example, there are more than 1,000 genes on the X chromosome. Since women have two X chromosomes but men only have one, this genetic difference has an impact. Genes on the X chromosome are responsible for why 1 in 20 men but only 1 in 400 women have red-green colour blindness. Genes on the X chromosome are also responsible for why 1 in 5,000 men, but hardly any women, have hemophilia type A. Science continues apace to unravel the functions of genes. Just last year our group published new findings of genes related to empathy – a skill that women are, on average, better at than men.
Biological determinists don’t dismiss the importance of culture. They simply don’t deny the role of biology. It is a moderate position, recognizing the interaction of social and biological factors. Nor, in my opinion, is biological determinism necessarily sexist. It can be sexist, if it is used to claim that all women do X and all men do Y (since sex differences don’t apply to all individuals of one sex) or if it is used to perpetuate social inequalities. Such sexist applications of biological determinist theories are abhorrent.
In our research, we use biological determinist theories in more nuanced ways. We find, for example, that it is your brain type, not your sex, which predicts how you will behave. Some brain types are more common in one sex than another, but because an individual can be atypical for their sex, it is meaningless to try to predict anything about a person’s behavior based on their sex. A brain type that leans towards strong “systemizing”, for example, is more common in males, but there are plenty of men who don’t have this profile, and quite a lot of females who do. Systemizing happens when you try to figure out how things work, be it a computer program, a car engine, or a math equation. We don’t yet know if strong systemizing is associated with particular sex-linked genes, but we should keep an open mind on this possibility, given that only 10% of professors of mathematics are female.
But back to Walter’s plea for more women in public life: I strongly echo her call. There is plenty we can do to make public life both more attractive and more accessible to women, including making prime ministerial debates less like a boxing fight, general elections less like tribal warfare, and the House of Commons working practices more family-friendly. None of this is likely to have anything to do with biological determinism.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen talks about detailed sexual differences in mental development, in genetic differences, in evolutionary differences and in brain development in autistic people.
Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University. An expert on autism spectrum disorders, he is author of The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (2003) and editor-in-chief of the online open access journal Molecular Autism and (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy; a New Theory of Human Cruelty.
|Born||15 August 1958 (age 52+)
|Citizenship||British and Canadian|
|Institutions||University of Cambridge|
|Alma mater||New College, Oxford
King’s College London
University College London
|Doctoral advisor||Uta Frith|
|Known for||Autism research|
Simon Baron-Cohen FBA (born 15 August 1958) is professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is the Director of the University’s Autism Research Centre, and a Fellow of Trinity College. He is best known for his work on autism, including his early theory that autism involves degrees of “mind-blindness” (or delays in the development of theory of mind); and his later theory that autism is an extreme form of the “male brain”, which involved a re-conceptualization of typical psychological sex differences in terms of empathizing–systemizing theory.
Baron-Cohen completed an MA in Human Sciences at New College, Oxford, and an MPhil in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. He did his PhD in Psychology at University College London under the supervision of Uta Frith.
Baron-Cohen was a co-author of the first study to show that children with autism have delays in the development of a theory of mind (ToM) (Cognition, 1985).
Baron-Cohen’s research over the subsequent 10 years provided much of the evidence for the ToM deficit, culminating in two edited anthologies (Understanding Other Minds, 1993, and 2000). His research group have linked the origins of the ToM deficit to joint attention (Brit J. Dev Psychol, 1987) and showed that absence of joint attention at 18 months is a predictor of later autism (Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1992, 1996). Based on these and other findings, he proposed a model of the development of ‘mindreading’ in his widely cited monograph (Mindblindness, 1995). Baron-Cohen has also conducted brain imaging work examining the autistic brain. These studies highlighted differences between typical and autistic participants in the orbito-frontal cortex (Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1994) PMID: 7866679 and the amygdala (Euro. J. Neuroscience, 1999), the latter leading him to propose the amygdala theory of autism (Neurosci. Behav. Rev. 2000). With his former doctoral student Mike Lombardo has also shown the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex is involved in ToM.
In the late 1990s Baron-Cohen developed the hypothesis that typical sex differences may provide a neurobiological and psychological understanding of autism (the empathizing–systemizing theory). The theory proposes that autism is an extreme of the male brain (J. Cog. Neurosci, 1997; TICS, 2002). This led to him situating ToM within the broader domain of empathy, and to the development of a new construct (systemizing). The extreme male brain (EMB) theory of autism sees autism as being on a continuum with individual differences in the general population (sex differences). Baron-Cohen proposes that the cause of autism at a biological level may be hyper-masculinization. This hypothesis posits that certain features of autism (‘obsessions’ and repetitive behavior, previously regarded as ‘purposeless’) as being highly purposive, intelligent (hyper-systemizing), and a sign of a different way of thinking. He wrote a popular book on the topic of sex differences and its relationship to autism (The Essential Difference, 2003).
Baron-Cohen launched the Cambridge Longitudinal Fetal Testosterone (FT) Project, a research program following children of mothers who had amniocentesis. This aimed to study the effects of individual differences in FT on later child development. This is summarized in a technical monograph (Prenatal Testosterone in Mind, 2004). This analysis showed that FT is negatively correlated with social and language development, and is positively correlated with attention to detail and a number of autistic traits (Brit. J. Psychology, 2009). His work studying FT led him to test the hyper-masculinization of autism at the psychometric level and in regard to developmental neurobiology (Science, 2005). The role of foetal testosterone in autism remains to be assessed in clinical cases, but gains some support from the recent discovery from Baron-Cohen’s lab of androgen-related genes being associated with autistic traits, empathy, and Asperger Syndrome (Autism Research, 2009), and from the finding that a precursor to testosterone (androstenedione) is elevated in autism (Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011).
Baron-Cohen has developed software for special education (Mindreading) and an animation series to teach children with autism to recognize and understand emotions (The Transporters) both of which were BAFTA nominated and have been scientifically evaluated to show that they have benefit to emotional and social learning in autism. Baron-Cohen’s work was applied to intervention in the book “Teaching Children With Autism To Mindread” (Wiley, 1997).
Baron-Cohen has worked in another research area: synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a sensation in one modality (e.g., hearing) triggers a perception in another modality (e.g., color). He and his colleagues were the first to develop the Test of Genuineness (Perception, 1987) and suggest that synesthesia is the result of a breakdown in modularity (Perception, 1993). They were also the first to confirmed the existence of synesthesia using neuroimaging (Brain, 1995 and Nature Neuroscience, 1999) and to demonstrate that it is a heritable condition, conducting the first genetic study of synesthesia (Perception, 1996; American Journal of Human Genetics, 2009).
Baron-Cohen has appeared in media interviews over 25 years in relation to his work in the field of autism. He appeared on Private Passions, on 13 April 2008, the biographical music discussion program hosted by Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3.
Baron-Cohen was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and was featured on the BBC news page calling for an ethical debate on the issue of a prenatal test for autism, arguing it is important to debate this in advance of such a test existing, given the pace of biomedical research in autism. In an article in 2000 (Development and Psychopathology) Baron-Cohen argued that high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome need not just lead to disability, but can also lead to talent. He has found the media largely report his work accurately but on two occasions his work has been misrepresented by the media. As a result, in March 2009, he wrote a comprehensive piece in New Scientist on the misrepresentation over his group’s research into fetal testosterone in typically developing children.
He has appeared in many television science documentaries, most recently Brainman in which he diagnosed Daniel Tammet (who has extreme memory) with both synesthesia and Asperger Syndrome.
In 2008 Baron-Cohen examined Gary McKinnon, the British computer hacker who had been accused of breaking into 97 United States military and NASA computer networks in 2001 and 2002, and diagnosed him as having Asperger Syndrome. McKinnon’s lawyers used this diagnosis in their appeal against his extradition to the U.S., but the British High Court nonetheless ruled that McKinnon should be extradited to the U.S. to face trial.
He recently appeared in a BBC4 documentary entitled “Kidult: Beautiful Young Minds”.
Personal life and awards
Baron-Cohen has been awarded the Spearman Medal from the British Psychological Society (BPS), the McAndless Award from the American Psychological Association, the May Davison Award for Clinical Psychology from the BPS, and the Presidents Award from the BPS. He was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Section for Psychology in 2007, and is Vice President of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) for 2009. He is also a Vice President of the National Autistic Society (UK). He is a Fellow of the BPS, the BA, and the Association of Psychological Science.
Baron-Cohen is the son of Judith and Vivian Baron-Cohen. He is married to Bridget Lindley and together they have three children, including independent film maker Sam Baron and songwriter Kate Baron. His brothers are film director Ash Baron Cohen and Dan Baron Cohen (International Drama and Education Association). His sisters include acupuncturist Aliza Baron Cohen. His cousins include computer scientist Amnon Baron Cohen, composer and musician Erran Baron Cohen, comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, composer Lewis Furey, film producer Daniel Louis, playwright Richard Greenblatt, University of Washington chemistry professor Seymour Rabinovitch, University of Montana Japanese professor Judith Rabinovitch, and film-director Mark Robson.
When a seven year old child, Simon Baron-Cohen’s father taught him about the Holocaust: “Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades and soap. He also recounted the story of a woman he met who had her hands severed by Nazi doctors and sewn on opposite arms so the thumbs faced outwards.”[
Exploring Autism, Empathy, and Neurodiversity:
5 Questions for Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen
Britannica Editors – Interview, December 16, 2010
Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and the director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. He is the author of Mindblindness (MIT Press, 1995), The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (Penguin UK/Basic Books, 2003), and Prenatal Testosterone in Mind (MIT Press, 2005), as well as several books on autism. He also wrote a special report, titled “The Autism Spectrum,” for Britannica’s Year in Review 2009.
Much of Baron-Cohen’s research centers around testing different theories of autism, exploring the neural, endocrine, and genetic basis for the condition. He is also investigating the relationship between autism and empathy—the ability to understand another person’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. To learn more about his work and findings, Britannica science editor Kara Rogers asked Baron-Cohen several questions. His responses shed light on not only the relationship between autism spectrum conditions and empathy but also the implications of stigmatization and the “neurodiversity movement.”
Britannica: Autism spectrum conditions, from Asperger syndrome to classic autism, are similar in that all are characterized by deficits in the ability to interact socially and to communicate. Yet, some autistic individuals are described as “high-functioning” and others as “low-functioning.” What distinguishes a high-functioning individual from a low-functioning individual, and how does cognitive function in autism spectrum conditions factor into associated deficits in the ability to interact socially?
Baron-Cohen: High vs. low functioning is a rather crude way to refer to the influence of IQ. Of course, IQ is not binary in this way, rather it is a continuous dimension. For this reason the planned changes in diagnostic classification will not be referring to high vs. low functioning but will be documenting IQ as an independent dimension to someone’s autism diagnosis. Clearly, if you have autism plus below-average IQ this means that as well as the challenges of autism you also have learning difficulties.
Britannica: Much of your research on autism has focused on empathy and emotion recognition. How is the ability to empathize measured? Are autism spectrum conditions in general associated with empathy deficits?
Baron-Cohen: Empathy has several different components. The recognition component can be measured using photographs and film-clips of facial expressions or audio clips of vocal intonation to see how well someone can recognize another person’s emotions or mental state. The response component is harder to measure but can be tested using electrophysiological and functional magnetic resonance imaging methods whilst the person is observing someone’s emotions.
Britannica: How might empathy difficulties manifest in social situations?
Baron-Cohen: Empathy difficulties are a parsimonious way of explaining a huge range of atypical behavior, and these include talking too loudly, standing too closely, dominating in a conversation, being disinterested in other viewpoints, trying to control others, not understanding others’ intentions or motives or body language, saying inappropriate things (faux pas), being unaware of how others see you or think about you, being disinterested in conformity, not attending to others’ faces, or not responding to hints.
Britannica: In what ways have your investigations of empathy and other behaviors affected by autism spectrum conditions influenced scientists’ understanding of typical human social behavior?
Baron-Cohen: Our studies of empathy in autism have prompted us to explore the very nature of empathy in the typical population. Regarding autism as an extreme of an empathy dimension has prompted us to explore what influences one’s position on that dimension, who ever you are. Factors that we have uncovered include your sex (females on average develop empathy quicker than males), activity of regions of the brain in the ‘empathy circuit’ (which includes the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex), hormonal factors (including foetal testosterone), and even genes. In addition to our biology, social factors clearly influence empathy too.
Britannica: Individuals with Asperger syndrome often use the term “neurotypical” to describe normal people, and in an effort to lessen the stigmatization associated with autism as a medical condition, the Asperger community has initiated the so-called neurodiversity movement. Can you briefly describe the neurodiversity movement and its implications on the diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions?
Baron-Cohen: The neurodiversity movement has been a very positive influence in reminding us that there is no single pathway in neurological development, but there are many ways to reach similar end-points. A simple illustration would be handedness, where we know that 12% of boys (and 8% of girls) are left-handed but end up being just as fluent in their motor skills as the majority (right-handers). This is an easy-to-identify example of neuro-atypicality, because it is observable. But the same logic applies to language development (some children talk as early as 12 months, others not until 24 months old, but with perfectly useful language in the end) and by implication, all other cognitive, affective, and motor skills.
Many of these differences are continuous dimensions (even handedness may be, and language certainly is) which further adds to the argument that one cannot draw a hard and fast distinction between normal and abnormal. Indeed, these very terms are arguably redundant if different subgroups in the population simply follow different developmental trajectories. In my theory, for example, we distinguish 5 different “brain types” and none is better or worse than another, as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. (These relate to the discrepancy between your empathy and your systemizing, where one might be mildly or significantly different to the other, in different directions).
The impact of dimensionalizing autism has been very positive, in terms of recognizing that we all have some autistic traits and that the difference between someone who needs a diagnosis and someone who does not is simply one of degree (they have more autistic traits) and their “fit” in society. (If their autistic traits are interfering with their ability to cope in their environment and causing suffering, then they need a diagnosis, but if they have a good fit between their autistic traits and their environment, they may not need a diagnosis).
Stigmatizing anyone, whether they have autism or any other characteristic, is wrong, since the point about these labels is not to pick out the person in order to make their lives worse, but to help others understand their special needs and qualities.
The Neuropsychology of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders — The Extreme Male Brain Theory: An Expert Interview With Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, MPhil
Medscape.com Editor’s Note:
The debate over what causes autism spectrum disorders has often focused on thimerosal-containing vaccines or the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, MPhil, has a different theory. To find out how this theory fits different types of data and how it is being tested, Randall F. White, MD, FRCPC, Medscape Psychiatry and Mental Health, interviewed Dr. Baron-Cohen, Director, Autism Research Centre; Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Medscape: You advance the proposition that people with autism have an imbalance in 2 cognitive capabilities, which makes them behave as though they are, at least in the cognitive realm, much more male than female. What are these fundamental differences between men and women that may help us understand the psychology of autism and Asperger’s disorder?
Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, MPhil: In the general population, you find that, on average, males have a stronger drive to systemize and females have a stronger drive to empathize. Those are the 2 cognitive processes we’ve been focusing on to try to understand autism and why it should be more common among boys than girls. We’ve found that people on the autistic spectrum show an exaggeration of the male profile.
Medscape: Can you explain what systemizing and empathizing mean in this context?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Systemizing is the drive to analyze or construct a system. It could be any kind of system — a mechanical system such as a computer, or a natural system such as the circulatory system of the body. Or it could be an abstract system like mathematics. The key thing is that when you systemize, you identify the rules or the laws that govern that system in order to predict how it will behave.
Empathizing is completely different. It’s about being able to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling, and having an emotional response to the other person’s feelings.
Medscape: In your writing, you have used the term “theory of mind.” Is that synonymous with empathizing?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: It’s part of empathy. Theory of mind is being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, being able to imagine what’s going on in his or her mind. But imagining someone else’s thoughts or feelings is only part of empathy. The other part is having [an appropriate] emotional reaction. The distinction is important because a psychopath might be able to figure out somebody else’s thoughts quite accurately but wouldn’t necessarily have an appropriate emotional response.
Medscape: In your view, a continuum of empathizing and systemizing exists, but if a person has high capacity in one, does that necessarily mean low capacity in the other?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Well, when we started working in this area, we set up a model as if these 2 things were independent of each other. But as we’ve tested more individuals, we’ve found there’s some kind of trade-off, so that people who are good at one tend to be worse at the other.
Medscape: That’s in normal people?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes, in the general population, we find that there’s a small negative correlation between the 2. That’s making us wonder whether they may depend on some common mechanism.
Medscape: A common neural substrate?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes. They might compete in the brain for space; that would be a very simple way that you could end up with that result. Or it could be that they’re both under the control of some third factor: it could be genes, it could be hormones.
Medscape: Can you provide some of the evidence that the cognitive profile of autism-spectrum disorders fits into this paradigm? What about the ability of people with such disorders to empathize?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Many different tests have looked at empathizing. One example would be judging emotional expressions from photographs of faces; that is, what somebody else might be feeling. People in the autistic spectrum tend to find that very difficult. They score significantly lower [than control subjects] on tests of emotion recognition, and that relates again to sex differences in the general population: women tend to do better in such tests than men.
A second example involves listening to speech and detecting if somebody said something hurtful. And again, people in the autistic spectrum find that quite difficult — to judge if somebody said something hurtful or rude. And in relation to sex differences, girls tend to be ahead of boys in developing this kind of social sensitivity.
Medscape: Can you now discuss the autistic capacity for systemizing?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: There are 2 ways we’ve thought about this. One is giving tests in, for example, physics, which is an area that requires systemizing — problems to solve that involve mechanics, for example. We’ve found that both children and adults with Asperger’s disorder score above average on that sort of test.
The other way we’ve been thinking about it is in the low-functioning individuals with autism (children with learning disabilities and very little language). They have very strong obsessions and do things in a very repetitive way, and those behaviors might also signify strong systemizing. An example might be a child with autism who wants to line things up repetitively or spin the wheels on a toy car for hours. Although they may not be demonstrating any special talent, they nevertheless become totally preoccupied with a very specific local system.
Medscape: In the editorial you recently published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood, you suggest that the extreme male brain hypothesis can explain why mental retardation is often associated with autistic disorder. Can you discuss that?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: It is a puzzle as to why these things should co-occur. And the first thing to say is that we don’t actually know what the rates of mental retardation are in autism. In the old days, the figure given was that 75% of children with autism also had below-average IQ. That’s quite high.
These days, the rates of autism are now thought to be 1 in 200 children.
Medscape: In that would you include pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes, exactly, and Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. So if the whole spectrum is actually more common [than previously thought], it may turn out that the association with mental retardation is not as strong as we previously thought.
One possibility is that the stronger your drive to systemize, the narrower your focus is on the environment. Imagine systemizing on a continuum, and if you’re at the highest point of this continuum, it could be that you become so focused on just one system that it delays your learning about the environment more widely. The child with autism who plays the same video over and over again to totally predict the video as a system may become an expert at one thing and fail to learn about even quite ordinary other things, and so may appear to have learning difficulties.
I think the group with what you call mental retardation and what we call in this country learning difficulties is not very well studied. One of the predictions of this new theory is that even those individuals with low IQ who have autism have good systemizing skills. We just need methods to test them.
Medscape: You also suggest that assortative mating may play a role in the cause of autism-spectrum disorders. Can you explain?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Assortative mating is a familiar concept in genetics. It describes the idea that 2 individuals may be more likely to reproduce together because they share some common characteristics. We know this is true for height — people tend to choose partners similar in height to themselves. The question is, could there be assortative mating based on systemizing among the parents of children with autism?
We have some preliminary clues that this is, in fact, going on. The first piece of evidence is that both parents of children with autism have very good attention to detail using a test called the embedded figures test. The second clue is that both parents are likely to have fathers who work in the field of engineering, which involves very good systemizing. This suggests that good systemizing may run in both sides of the family, a suggestion of assortative mating in the parents.
The last piece of evidence is a very recent study in which we’ve been using MRI to look at functional brain activity in mothers and fathers of children with autism and finding that there are areas of the brain in which both parents show what you might call hypermasculinization. Where you expect to find sex differences in the general population in the brain, you find that these mothers and fathers are showing an extreme of the male profile.
I don’t think there’s much controversy that autism is genetic. There’s a lot of consensus around that. The question is which genes are important and what those genes are for.
Medscape: One writer has speculated that the increase in autism- spectrum disorders in Silicon Valley in California is a consequence of computer scientists having children together. What do you think of that notion — is it a testable hypothesis?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes, I’m aware of it. I think that most of the evidence is anecdotal. People claim that the rate of autism is very high in Silicon Valley, but I haven’t seen any good studies looking at it.
It shouldn’t be difficult to test, but to do it properly you need to have large samples. We’re trying to test it, collecting data in areas where either both parents are strong systemizers, for example, working in the computer industry, or where just one of the parents is working in that field, or where neither parent works in that field. [We will look] at the relative rates of autism among those different combinations of couples.
Medscape: So you are involved in such an epidemiologic study now?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes, and it’s just taken quite a lot of time to set up the study, but we hope to have results this year.
Medscape: Is that being done in England?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: It’s being done in the United States and in England because to be able to generalize the findings, it helps if you can show it’s not specific to one locality.
Medscape: You have undertaken the study of fetal testosterone exposure and its effects on language and social abilities in children. What have you found that corroborates your hypothesis?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: [In] women who are having amniocentesis for clinical reasons, we simply asked for their consent to analyze the amniotic fluid for testosterone, then we followed up the baby after birth to see how hormone levels relate to behavior. We’ve found that the higher the child’s fetal testosterone, the less eye contact the child makes at 12 months of age and the slower it is to develop language at 18 months old.
The same children have been followed up at 4 years old. We’ve looked at their social skills and also at “narrow interests.” The results showed that the higher the fetal testosterone, the more social difficulty the child was having at school and the narrower the child’s interests. It relates to whether there might be some relationship between systemizing and empathizing, because narrow interests could be related to systemizing. When you systemize, you really need to zero in on small details, and obviously social skills very much relate to empathizing. What we’re finding is that they both seem to have a relationship with fetal testosterone.
Medscape: Fragile X syndrome is a medical condition known to be associated with autistic disorder. Might that association somehow illuminate the neuropsychology of the extreme male brain?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: The X chromosome is an area of a lot of interest. A study found that if you look at girls with Turner’s syndrome according to whether they have their X chromosome from the father or the mother, there’s a difference in their social skills. As the genetics get better understood, it may well be shown that the X chromosome plays an important part in autism and even in individual differences in empathy. We also know that the X chromosome contains genes that regulate testosterone. I think that the genetic and hormonal explanations may not be mutually exclusive.
Medscape: So is it possible that an extreme male brain may be an end product of several pathways?
Dr. Baron-Cohen: Yes, that sounds possible. We’ve been investigating one mechanism, which is fetal testosterone, and we’ve been looking at a relatively small sample of [nonautistic] children, about 70, and just at individual differences. To test if that’s got any relevance to autism or an extreme male profile, you’d need a much larger sample. That’s what we’re doing at the moment, by trying to collect thousands of samples of amniotic fluid so that we can follow up to see who develops autism and if their fetal testosterone was elevated. I want to make it clear that hormones are not necessarily the only factor. They may be interacting with genes, for example.