by McCallie L. Smith III (Trip)
Chapter 11 of Lende and Downy’s book, The Encultured Brain, is a case study that was conducted by Rachel S. Brezis that deals with the general topics of autism, religious practice and beliefs, and agency. However, speaking more directly to the specifics of her study, Brezis hones in on the theory of mind, which she describes as “our ability to understand others’ thoughts and intentions”(Brezis 292). She refffrences a hypothesis proposed by another scholar, Jesse Bering, as a framework if sorts to set up her research. Bering’s hypotheses suggests that individuals who have autism would not posses Theory of Mind, or is incapable of understanding not only other individual’s thoughts and intentions, and thus individuals with autism would develop a mechanical, or impersonal way of understanding the universe (Brezis 292). She also uses Bering’s hypothesis as grounds to open on of her research questions: “Given autistic persons’ difficulty in inferring with others’ thoughts, would they be capable of conceiving of the world as directed by a spiritual agent?” (Brezis 292).
Brezis approached this question by conducting ethnographic research on individuals who have autism, and focusing on the religious aspects of their life. The research she conducted was “focused on individuals with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, who have spared language abilities and normal to above normal intelligence, along side their social and communicative difficulties” (Brezis 293). She goes and introduces several paradigms of the causes of behavioral defects of autism, and they are “impairment of theory of mind”, “weak central cohearence”, and “pervasive difficuilty in engaging in pretend play and symbolic, non-literal communications” (Brezis 293-4). Also, Brezis introduces an emerging theory of autism that connects several of the paradigms that currently exist “to a central deficit in self-understanding” (Brezis 294).
The theory of mind aspect perpetuates a fair amount throughout the rest of the chapter. This is probably because it is the paradigm that Bering (2002) uses to make predictions that individuals having autism “would not search for an intentional agent to give meaning to events in the world”, Brezis’s application and main focus on theory of mind in her research helps to refute the previous notions provided by Bering (2002).
The notion of theory of mind, and the other paradigms presented by Bering (2002) would present a great deal of difficulties to an individual who has autism, and one of those difficulties might be religion and religious development. As Brezis points out a main aspect of religious development theory is the idea of the individuals personal “relationship with the divine is modeled after social relation ships”, and as previously mentioned, this process could be disrupted in an individual who has autism. Due to these notions Bering (2002) makes predictions that individuals with autism my have ritualistic behavior, but would lack the “existential search for meaning, or the religious belief in God” (Brezis 296). Brezis extends past the predictions of Bering, and conducts ethnographic first person accounts of religious belief in individuals in autism.
The religious background she chooses to us for her research was Judaism. She decided on Judaism because “of its special emphasis on the behavioral performance of 613 biblical commandments and their deviations, alongside its lack of a specific credo” (Brezis 296). She had a total of sixteen participants in the study four of which were female, and the rest male all participants were between the ages of 9 to 26. “Participants were recruited through local support groups for parents of autistic children in and around Jerusalem”, and their degree of religious practice varied from “ultra-orthodox to secular” (Brezis 297). She conducted all the interviews in Hebrew, and three participants interviews, out of the original sixteen, had to be excluded form the study. The interviews she conducted were between one hour to one hour and half hours. She opened with questions regarding the degree of religious practice, such as keeping kosher, Shabbat, and holidays they and their parents keep, and then she slowly worked into more “personal questions of belief and the nature of their personal relationship with God” (Brezis 298).
The results of her research were full of diversity and rich with information that is worthy of further inquiry. There are several excerpts that Brezis includes in the chapter from her interviews that point to a use of religious and cultural scripts and “scaffolding of personal identity, but also refute Bering’s (2002) predictions that “autistic persons would fail to develop agentive views of God” (Brezis 306). Brezis was in fact able to show, through her interviews, “that autistic persons can hold an agentive view of God as directing events in the World, and a minority can even engage in an amore personal exchange with God” (Brezis 306).
This chapter is a striking one in the essence that there is a wealth of potential for future research that can be conducted and the copious amounts beneficial aspects that said research could produce, and this chapter was just scratch on the surface. There should be, and hopefully already is more and current research being conducted surrounding the ideas proposed in this chapter. There is not much from this study that can be ultimately conclusive other than what was mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, the study is able to add new narrative to the continuing debate surrounding the role theory of mind has on the neuropsychological foundations of religious belief. Also, adding new narrative to autism studies in anthropology. An ethnographic anthropological approach has the ability to capture, or attempts to capture, the natural occurrence of things as the happen in nature, and in this case how individuals with autism navigate their various strengths and weaknesses as they occur naturally instead laboratory setting that’s can be isolating and commonly focuses on just one or two aspect here and there.
Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey. "Chapter 11 Autism as a Case for Neuroanthropology: Delineating the Role of Theory of Mind in Religious Development." The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. 292-314. Print.