abstract Justin Williams

Justin Williams (Department of Child Health, University of Aberdeen, U.K.)

Grounded empathy and the psychopathology of autism

Classic modular psychology proposed a theory of mind mechanism that was distinct and separate from the sensory and motor systems that fed it. More recent perspectives on embodied cognition would consider empathy to be grounded in the sensorimotor mechanisms that encode the actions that characterise it. This ties empathy to observing, imagining or expressing actions that show feelings and suggests a central role for the mirror neuron system (MNS) in the development of empathic function. Williams et al. (2001) proposed that abnormal control mechanisms resulted in dysfunctional development of the MNS manifesting as autism. Problems with development of the MNS may occur due to problems intrinsic to the MNS itself or abnormal limbic or paralimbic control resulting in rigid or restricted patterns of reinforcement. In this talk, I will review one of the clearest, most obvious and yet most overlooked sources of evidence supporting the mirror neuron hypothesis of autism. The most widely used clinical instrument for the diagnosis of autism shows its reliance on problems with the expression of mental states in action, imagined action in play or social communication. These symptoms reflect a problem with the formation of secondary representations of action in autism, which has also been demonstrated through studies showing problems with imitation. Finally, I will also show some data relating MNS function during facial imitation to normal variability of empathic traits in the typical population.