Unit IV: Neurocognitive Theories
1. Theory of Mind
2. Executive Functioning
3. Central Coherence
4. Implications in Learning and Educational Implications
1. Theory of Mind
Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand the desires, intentions and beliefs of others, and is a skill that develops between 3 and 5 years of age in typically developing children.
We aren’t born immediately knowing that others have unique beliefs and desires that are unique from our own. It turns out that there are several developmental precursors (or skills) that infants need to develop their theory of mind later on Westby & Robinson, 2014).
These skills include the ability to comprehend the concept of attention, understand the intentions of others, and the ability to imitate others are all rungs on the ladder you must climb before reaching the platform of theory of mind.
Other developmental precursors necessary of theory of mind to develop include (i) pretending to be someone else (like a doctor or a cashier); (ii) understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; and (iii) understanding ther people and have different likes/dislikes.
According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, attention is one of the first underlying precursors to the development of a fully-fledged theory of mind.
This involves recognizing that seeing is not merely looking, but rather we can selectively direct our attention to specific objects and people (Baron-Cohen, 1991). A key example of this attention is joint attention.
Joint attention occurs when two people direct their attention towards the same thing of interest – often doing via pointing so as to direct another’s attention to the same source.
When infants understand this gesture, they are simultaneously processing another person’s mental state, recognizing that this object is something that another person thinks is of interest (Baron-Cohen, 1991), thus illustrating the beginning phases of the theory of mind.
A second core component that contributes to the development of the theory of mind is that of intentionality, or the understanding that others’ actions are goal-directed and arise out of unique beliefs and desires, as defined by philosopher Daniel Dennett (1983).
Toddlers as young as 2 years old exhibit an understanding of intentionality (Luchkina et al., 2018) as do chimpanzees and orangutans (Call & Tomasello, 1998).
To understand that people act in a way that is motivated by their desires (for example, I am hungry so I will reach for that apple) is to understand that other people have their own desires (she must be hungry), thus demonstrating a theory of mind, or attributing mental states to others.
Imitating others is a third building block of theory of mind. The ability to imitate others is to recognize recognizing that others have their own beliefs and desires.
For example, bridging attention and intentionality, imitation can result when a child realizes that others direct their attention (to an object, etc.) and do so intentionally (motivated by goal-directed behavior).
Internalizing these two concepts, the child then engages in imitation and may direct his or her eyes towards that specific object or scene.
However, there is some pushback that imitation is not as much of a crucial precursor for theory of mind. A 2000 longitudinal study found that the infants’ imitation scores were not associated with later theory of mind ability (Charman, 2000).
Between ages 4-5, children really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges. The actual development of the theory of mind generally follows an agreed-upon sequence of steps (Wellman, 2004; Wellman & Peterson, 2012):
Simply described, “Theory of Mind” is the ability to attribute thoughts and feelings to others. Individuals with ASD generally have difficulty imagining how other people may be feeling in a situation or forming hypotheses about what others may be thinking. Because of this, understanding the nuances of social interaction may be very difficult.
Students with ASD are often unable to discern unwritten social rules and may find themselves in social difficulty because of their inability to perceive the subtleties of interaction. Very often, direct teaching and ongoing mentoring are necessary to help the student develop an awareness of expectations and to generalize appropriate responses and behaviours across the school environment. Although it is difficult for many students with ASD to develop a comprehensive understanding of what other people may be thinking or feeling, such students can be provided with the tools needed to manage their social behaviours and establish relationships with others to the best of their ability.
2. Executive Functioning
Executive function is a term that is widely used in autism circles to describe a broad array of skills that have to do with an individual’s cognitive function. Some sources say that up to 80% of those with autism suffer from executive function disorder, leading to difficulties managing time, completing tasks, and making what for many of us would be simple tasks – like cleaning our rooms – very complicated or seemingly impossible.
For some people with ASD, social and communication difficulties are not the primary issue. They are socially engaged and are doing their best to communicate frequently, but they are unable to respond in a timely and organized way to the requests of parents and teachers, or to organize and initiate sophisticated play because they have considerable difficulty with executive function.
The technical definition of executive function is: the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions. But what does that look like in real life?
It includes skills such as:
3. Paying attention
4. Inhibiting inappropriate responses
Many people with autism have difficulty with executive functioning. They may have trouble with certain skills like planning, staying organized, sequencing information, and self-regulating emotions.
Some people pay attention to minor details, but have trouble seeing how these details fit into a bigger picture.
Others have trouble maintaining their attention in the classroom or other settings.
When preparing to do a task, some may find it hard to organize their thoughts and actions in order to figure out what sequence of steps are needed.
Executive functioning difficulties can also be associated with poor impulse control.
Some have difficulty with complex thinking that requires holding more than one train of thought at the same time. For instance, Temple Grandin once said: "I cannot hold one piece of information in my mind while I manipulate the next step in the sequence."
Executive function in autism has most commonly been tested using the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST) (Grant & Berg, 1948) which relies on cognitive shifting ability. In this task, participants sort cards and are given feedback based on a rule that they have not been told. The feedback allows the rule to be ascertained but, without the participant’s knowledge, the rule is changed every time ten cards have been sorted. Participants are scored based on how many perseverative responses they make. That is, the number of cards they sort based on a previously correct category despite being given negative feedback when the rule changed. The majority of studies have found that individuals with autism perform worse on the WCST, displaying increased perseveration and difficulties in shifting between sorting strategies (Bennetto et al., 1996; Ozonoff & McEvoy, 1994; Prior & Hoffman, 1990). Similar results are found when using Tower of Hanoi (Bennetto et al., 1996; Ozonoff & McEvoy, 1994) or Tower of London tasks (Shallice, 1982) that involve planning and working memory. Individuals with autism show poor task performance relative to control individuals.
Executive functioning issues can cause challenges in the classroom setting. Few tips to help students with autism succeed in the classroom:
3. Central Coherence
The third major theory of autism is that weak central coherence (WCC) underlies the condition (Frith, 1989). WCC refers to a difficulty integrating component parts of a visual scene to create a coherent whole. Frith suggested that within autism there is a deficit in the cognitive system that is responsible for this process of extracting overall meaning, causing individuals with autism to process constituent parts of an item as separate entities rather than seeing the item in its entirety. The evidence that led to this theory comes not from observed deficits but from the superior performance that individuals with autism demonstrate on various tasks. One of the distinctive characteristics of autism is the uneven cognitive profile that is seen when administering IQ measures. While typical individuals show equivalent performance across all subtests, individuals with autism consistently show below average performance in the verbal tasks and above average performance in non-verbal measures such as block design and pattern construction (Shah & Frith, 1983; 1993). An even more striking advantage is seen on The Embedded Figures Task (EFT) (Witkin et al., 1971). This involves the detection of a shape that is hidden within a picture, e.g. a triangle that is hidden in the line-drawing of a baby’s pram. Both children and adults with autism seem to detect the target faster than their typically developing counterparts (Jolliffe & Baron-Cohen, 1997; Shah & Frith, 1983).
In 1989, Uta Frith* proposed the Weak Central Coherence Theory of autism. “Central coherence” was the term given to a human being’s ability to derive overall meaning from a mass of details. A person with strong central coherence, looking at an endless expanse of trees, would see “the forest.” A person with weak central coherence would see only a whole lot of individual trees.
It was Frith’s belief that other theories might account for the core deficits of individuals with ASDs, but could not account for their amazing strengths. For instance, some individuals with ASDs have “savant” skills –a remarkable ability in areas such as music, memory, or calculation. People on the spectrum tend to excel at focusing on extreme detail, and so are able to pick out a tiny element from a mass of complex data or objects. The notion of “weak central coherence” could explain both deficits and strengths. When a task required a person to extract global meaning from many details, to get the “big picture”, people with ASDs would be at a major disadvantage. When picking out extreme detail from surrounding masses of information was required, people with ASDs would be in a position to shine. They would be good at parts, but not at wholes.
Frith, who calls this “a detail-focused cognitive style”, stated in a recent article that weak central coherence is not just a failure to extract global form and meaning, but is also “an outcome of superiority in local processing” --something she views as a bias rather than a lack.
The term “central coherence” refers to the “neurotypical” (NT, i.e., non-autistic) tendency to pull information together and process information in context, looking for the “big picture” and drawing out meaning, often at the expense of details. By contrast, “weak central coherence” refers to the tendency in ASD to attend to and remember details rather than global form or meaning.
Some of the difficulties which may occur with weak Central Coherence:
· Seeing connections and generalising skills.
· Idiosyncratic focus of attention and inattentiveness to new tasks.
· Difficulty prioritising and choosing.
· Preference for the known (Cumine, Leach & Stevenson, 1998).
4. Implications in Learning and Educational Implications
Teachers' can facilitate a life time of successful learning by equipping students with a repertoire of strategies and tools for learning. The teacher plays an important role in the educational process. Effective teaching depends upon the evolution of innovative strategies and also the methodology of teaching. As we gain a more scientifically based understanding about today's novel brain and how it learns, we must rethink about what we do in classroom and school. Neuro scientists are mapping the pathways between body and brain, providing tangible evidence of the benefits of hands-on, experimental learning. Neurocognitive process includes a number of human functions through neuronal networks. Brain cells communicating with each other through on electrochemical process. Neurocognition includes perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging and reasoning processes. The neurocognitive approach is based upon certain irrefutable facts concerning brain functions, which are applied to the intervention strategies of student teachers developmental difficulties. The teachers must develop the competencies like content competency, contextual competency, communication competency, classroom management and evaluation competency. In this paper, we discuss how the brain and its functions are helpful to the teachers in teaching and bringing out the dimensions of teaching competency such as induction, content, pedagogy, organisation and assessment. We elucidate the Neurocognitive strategies are how helpful to bring out the secrets of amygdala and hippocampus involving in teaching strategies. We also emphasize that the recent development of designing Neurocognitive programme that focus on both cognitive and social development has theoretical and practical challenges.