Some persons with Asperger Syndrome have problems mentalizing (although it not being part of any diagnosis criteria as more than “impaired” skills in social interaction and communication – I’ll add a source if I find one!)
I’m one of them, but before I get into my personal experience of it lets define mentalization:
“Thinking is thinking. Mentalising is thinking about thinking and feeling…” – http://www.organiclemon.org/id7.html
“To understand the behavior of others as a product of their mental state” – http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mentalize
“Mentalizing – the ability to understand oneself and others by inferring the mental states that lie behind overt behavior” – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/psychoanalysis/unit-staff/mentalization_bpd.htm
You may also find this article on Wikipedia helpful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentalization
Sometimes I’ve heard Aspies are supposed to have problems with empathy (which is totally wrong in my case – I empathize). I think Aspies probably have trouble with the mentalization (among other things – some people are actually too shy to talk much even when it is obvious the other person needs it – that, however, is not me! :))
If you are unable to, or having a hard time to, imagine the other person’s feelings and thoughts correctly, you’ll also have a hard time figuring out the correct emotional response. And when you laugh or look serious in the wrong situation people will start wondering about your empathic abilities.
I have a bunch of examples from my past, like the girlfriend, I was feeling was sliding away – and when she had her birthday without inviting me I call her to ask why, and finally breaks up with her… just to realize I did this on her birthday… but by then it was too late. Foot firmly inserted in mouth. What I’m saying here is, breaking up might have been the right thing to do, but not on her birthday… or over the phone for that matter. Sure I had an idea about what was going on, and what I should do, but I never stopped to think about how she would feel about my behavior.
Having problems mentalizing also makes you an easy target for anyone wanting to con or take advantage of you (I stopped counting the amount of money and time I’ve thrown out the window on idiots I didn’t figure for idiots until too late). If you don’t get a feel for the other person’s thoughts, needs, etc, you use yourself as a reference instead, and I happen to be a pretty nice and honest person (too damn honest – but that’s another post). So when the signal doesn’t get through you start by saying – hey they have honest intentions, right? And then when you get burned and the signal still doesn’t get through, you start saying – hey this (completely different person) is probably going to do just the same thing (as the other, completely psychopathic person did)… right?
Another consequence is that you might seem selfish or self-absorbed. You’re having a hard time getting the feel for what’s going on in the head of other people so you start using yourself as the yardstick. And this, in turn, makes talking about everything from your perspective an important part in understanding everyone else.
Lacking in mentalization also means an Aspie might say, “hey I don’t want to talk about that, it’s boring…” Which isn’t the best of conversation starters, but because you’re not so much in tune with what’s going on in the head of the other person you miss the fact that talking about what you want all day might actually be boring to them.
However, there’s some hope. First of all, like anyone else, I’ve also grown up. And as you get older things start falling in place. I might feel a conversation is boring, but try to steer it into something else, something both parties might actually find interesting. Not just say, “boooring” right out. And since I have rather narrow interests (another Aspie thing) I’ve become an expert on not just seeming interested, but finding interesting things in what people tell me (like when they go on about painting the boat or orchids – the orchids conversation actually got me thinking about getting more flowers to my apartment… see?)
Another thing is, most people actually aren’t as complicated as you might think. They have a few things going through their heads, different fears (of not fitting in, or lacking in some way, or that someone near or dear will get hurt, or won’t like us – fear is a huge part of what goes through people’s heads on a daily basis) and needs (love, safety, self-worth… well basically Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), and so on. It takes years to figure it out, but even after a short while you start understanding – on a logical level – what’s most likely going on in the head of the people around you.
I’ve found books on body language and facial expressions help a lot (think “Lie to Me” but less fantastic and more scientific). My favorite book (which unfortunately doesn’t exist in English) is called “The art of Reading Minds” (translation of “Konsten att läsa tankar” by Henrik Fexeus, there’s also a German translation, but I have a hard time thinking there wouldn’t be equivalent texts in English or other languages.)
What I like about this book is that it’s scientific (in spite of the title), it does not claim to contain any truth or only way to do things, and it’s pragmatic. Instead of tons of theories on rapport (to mention one of its subjects) you get; try to speak and breathe in the same pace as the other person, and you’ll start creating rapport, and when your body is on the same level of alertness as the other person, it might be pretty easy to figure out what they feel and think – simply by looking at your own thoughts and feelings, which is more often than we’d like influenced by our breathing, alertness level, and other purely corporeal factors.
So, by analyzing behavior, it is possible to do what most people do by instinct, even though it takes longer to get there, and you may sometimes come off as a bit self-centered or too analytical. The core of the problem, however, was nicely described to me by a friend from many years ago. We were having a rather philosophical conversation and she said, “you know, I can ask if you understand, and you might say, sure I do, but I’ll never be able to know for sure that you really do.”
And that’s the human condition for you 😉