Psychologists who study learning and memory have a special interest in how people navigate reality in a three-dimensional world. There is a huge variation in abilities for spatial learning among adults, and some of these skills don’t even appear until adolescence. How you interact with other people has a lot to do with how well you are able to literally take their perspective.
Johns Hopkins scientist Amy Shelton has found that strong social skills may be an important factor in your spatial skills. That is, people who are very good at taking on the visual perspective of another person also test well on social abilities. And these abilities only appear when the participant is asked to take the perspective of a person — not that of an object.
The paper’s authors suggest this ability to take another perspective is important because it requires Theory of Mind, something that is often found lacking in persons on the autism spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Of course the author notes that there are a number of factors that influence social ability like “interest, comfort, and savvy in social situations.”
For this experiment, researchers focused on the question of perspective. They asked participants to describe the perspective of different objects placed near 22 Lego buildings. The variable that changed: one of the objects was person-like, a faceless doll, and the other two were not (a toy camera, colored plastic triangles). Participants were asked which figure had the view of the building displayed on the computer screen and tried to match them.
What they found was that one group of participants were much better at correctly identifying the views from the perspective of the faceless doll only. This group also scored low on “the Autism Quotient,” a questionnaire designed to assess the degree to which adults of normal intelligence show five different traits associated with autism spectrum disorders: social skill (higher score = poorer social skills), perseveration (higher score = more difficulty shifting attention), attention to detail (higher score = greater focus on details), communication (higher score = poorer communication), imagination (higher score = less imaginative).”
Amy Shelton says there are some interesting implications for thinking about empathy and viewpoints of an “other”:
“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research is that it emphasizes a ‘whole person’ approach. We tend to think of ourselves as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills, but these results suggest that different skills really do interact and have an impact on each other. For instance, I might be good at giving directions to another person because I have good spatial skills, but I might be even better at it if I can also empathize or embody the other person’s perspective.”