Arm as Tool

This is my brother Mike. He is older than me, autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. That’s our Dad in the background.

Mike, Dad and my arm

You can see that Mike has something in his hand. Wait, that’s my arm! He must want something. Dad didn’t understand what it was, so I guess Mike wants to use my arm to help accomplish his goal.

Autism has degrees of severity. That is the reason for defining that condition as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My understanding, borne out by observations and interactions with my brother, is that those on the lower end of the spectrum do not understand that other minds exist. Autistic aloneness seems to be characterized by the idea that the autistic person is the only consciousness in his or her universe. Everything else is inanimate.

If one does not realize immediately that the object in Mike’s hand is my arm, for an instant we see the world from Mike’s perspective.

11 thoughts on “Arm as Tool

      • This ability to understand there are other minds has a spectrum that is not defined but I strongly suspect that it defines a spectrum of emotions and social interactions that we simply do not classify in this way.

          • The basic idea is simple. The empathic function and recognizing another mind are linked after a fashion. Those who recognize a dog has a mind are more empathetic to them. This will be seen as anthropomorphisms generally speaking. Sociopaths lack empathy so even if they know there is a mind, they do not see them the same as they see their own mind. They tend to lack empathy rather than the ability to recognize another mind yet in ways they will treat others as if they do not recognize the mind they are interacting with as a ‘mind’.

            An intelligent/functioning mind will rationalize/justify their understanding of other minds. We generally do not share empathy with food stock. This overrides the other mechanisms. We can eat cow or aligator or chicken but not dogs or cats (at least in the west).

            Recognition of another mind is therefore a purposeful action. We simulate the world around us in our heads. Every object in the simulation follows a set of rules. There are millions of rules: chairs don’t float, boats don’t fly, birds don’t play baseball and so on along with all the things that each ‘kind’ of object does. An exagerated rule would be that people cannot remove their natural limbs, so when we see such a thing our brains start screaming alerts that it is not right.

            The ability to assign rules to objects allows us to recognize objects by the rules they appear to follow. Something bounding down the road would be following all or most of the rules that govern ‘balls’ … Not being able to assign or comprehend the rules for objects can prevent us from recognizing an object. Think of all the lights in the night sky that get reported as UFOs or the garden hose in your lawn that you mistake for a snake.

            Empathy can be described as emulating in our simulation what other people are thinking/feeling. The simulation uses the parts of our brains which also collect information for our simulation – so when you watch someone take a really hard fall, your brain basically gets the same information sent as if you had taken the fall but without the physical sensations.

            The interaction of these functions gives us a ‘normal’ range where we generally always get the recognition of another mind correct. If any of them drift too far away from ‘standard’ we will have trouble recognizing another mind as a mind like our own. Having observed your brother extensively, you might be able to recognize a pattern where his interactions with objects fits the idea that one of these functions is not working fully.

            If you were onlhy able to assign 7 facets to an object, you might understand family/friends as having a mind but not quite get it in other people. More simply, you could recognize all common chair configurations, but for eccentric chair designs you might not be able to recognize the object as a chair. This is how I see common pets – not able to assign many rules/facets to objects. Anything that rolls on the floor is immediately suspected of being a vacuum cleaner if it has the vague shape of an upright vacuum.

            To understand people better, I generally attempt to see a problem or the world from their perspective, changing it slightly repeatedly till I find a perspective that would give me reactions matching their own. It’s an extra step that we don’t often take till after we’ve already assumed the other person is just wrong because our simulation didn’t come up with the same answers/results. This helps me deduce missing information often enough.

            Of course, this is just how I see things. The universe as a simulation in your brain is not supported by anyone else that I know of. For me, it makes sense of many things I’ve observed.

            • So you mean a people have the ability to see a range of different kinds of minds, is that what you mean? For example, it is less difficult to imagine the mind of someone from the same background than it would be to imagine a mind from a culture with which one is not familiar.

              I wrote a post on this a few days ago about ‘Intentionality’, from which the concept ‘intentional stance’ is derived. The intentional stance is the attribution of mental states to another in order to predict the other’s actions. The closer one is to successful prediction, the more accurate the guess as to the other’s mental state. I think this also might be something of what you are saying.

              Very interesting comment. Thank you.



              • Indeed, that does play into the interactions.
                In trying to explain xenophobia if we see that having to reconcile experience and simulation rules it causes us discomfort – such as disorientation of a sort. In-group members all fit our simulation rules where out-group members do not… until our rules reconcile and we accept them into the group.

                Intentional Stance then is to adjust the rules of our simulation in order to predict in the simulation what will be observed in reality. To do this well, one has to have a shared experience information pool with the person being predicted. If the predictor does not share the experience pool, they will have a tough time predicting the actions of the other without some very creative adjustments to the simulation rules for humans.

                This gives us another aspect which interacts with the other functions – there are many more. The only commonality from one mind to another (that I can see) is that we are all simulating the world around us in our brains and we live in that simulation. If the information is bad or the rules are bad, our perception of and interaction with the world will be less than optimal. Because of this, I have strong hope that people like your brother and many others will find relief in the not too distant future.

                We know how to fix mechanical parts of the body. If the mind is truly mechanical, then stem cell research and others will offer us a method to offer them relief to more fully experience life’s richness.

                A good conversation, indeed.

                • Alas, the mind is anything but truly mechanical. Neither is the brain, for that matter. Not to say stem cell research is not a potentially fruitful approach to many ills.

                  On to the mind-brain problem!

                  • The mind-brain duality problem is how I got to the simulation. I think it actually explains the dualist mirage using a monist approach.

                    Perception is everything and on this one problem we are hobbled by the locus of our consciousness.

  1. I love the perspective of the photograph and the way it disembodies you. As you say, the photograph turns you into a tool and offers an alternative perspective. My son uses my arm in a similar way. This shot really interests me. Thank you.

    • Thank you. I hadn’t really paid attention to this photo until just recently. It does illustrate the idea that my brother may only see me as a tool. I’m really glad this photo resonated with you.

      Best regards,


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: