Interview

Uta Frith: ‘The ability to reflect on our thoughts – I call it the human superpower’

27.9.2021 | What is it about humans that makes us so good at social interaction and what happens when it goes wrong? We spoke to Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development Uta Frith DBE about her upcoming book What Makes Us Social and what she’s learned from a long career at the forefront of autism and dyslexia research.
Uta Frith
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(© Uta Frith)


Uta Frith

Prof Frith, you’re a pioneer in autism and dyslexia research. To the uninitiated, it might seem like two quite separate fields. What’s the connection?

As a student in the 1960s, I was interested in child development and the problems that can arise. At that time, it was believed that a child couldn't possibly have something wrong with their brain that could explain why they couldn't learn to read; it was all put onto social environmental causes. With autism, there was also this idea that it couldn't have anything to do with the brain. Instead, mothers were blamed for producing children who were withdrawn – the infamous ‘refrigerator mother’ theory.

So, in both cases, the prevailing idea was that the problems were caused by the child’s environment and could be righted by psychotherapy. I was very sceptical about this. There’s a big difference between being withdrawn or socially anxious and being autistic. With dyslexia, I knew there were children who maybe weren't taught very well, but there were also children who didn't learn to read for reasons that were completely puzzling. I wanted to find a biological basis for these conditions. It was a big debate: do these things really exist as neuropsychological disorders or not? Disorders also give us a window into the developing brain to see what might normally be happening. You may think that because a child has a brain problem, they’re unable to learn. But this is not true, and you can see this plainly in autistic and dyslexic children. I was fascinated by the performance highs on some tests and lows on others. These problems fascinated me because they allowed me to get a glimpse into the architecture of the mind; the word cognition is being used in order to talk about the mind, something that is not the same as behaviour and not the same as brain, but in between the two. That really excited me.



Especially autism is receiving a lot of media attention these days, so much so that it appears to be a ‘new’ phenomenon. But is it really?

No, it has been around for a long time and there are some fascinating examples. In fact, I worked with a historian of medicine who found a document from a court case in 1745 in Edinburgh, where over 20 witnesses were being asked by a jury about the mental capacity of a strange man called Hugh Blair of Borgue; it was a huge family feud because his brother tried to disinherit him. What the witnesses said fits incredibly well with the modern-day diagnostic criteria of autism. There is no reason to think that autism has not always been with us but without being labelled as such.



There is no reason to think that autism has not always been with us but without being labelled as such.



You’re currently working on a book with your husband Chris Frith called What Makes Us Social. How did that project come about?


The reason is very concrete: several years ago, my husband and I got the Jean Nicod Prize sponsored by the École Normale Supérieure, and the condition for receiving the prize was to give a series of lectures and turn them into a book.


On our way to and from the lectures we loved to visit bookshops selling comic books. We thought, oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to write a graphic non-fiction book? And that’s what we have just finished doing, but we’re still obligated to write the academic book, What Makes Us Social. We are drawing together what we know about the social brain, what we know about behaviour, how this can explain how we act and interact. All my work on autism has prepared me to think about what it is that makes us social and what makes it problematic for some people.


We want only to report stuff with solid evidence behind it, either from neurophysiology or from computational models. We talk about abnormal conditions including schizophrenia and psychopathy, and certainly autism, but it is mostly about how we understand ourselves as social creatures against the background of evolution. All animals are social; there is so much to be gained from being in a group but there are also problems, for example competition for resources.



If all animals are social, is there anything special about the way humans are social?

For one thing, there is mentalizing or Theory of Mind. It has to do with understanding that other people have beliefs and desires and intentions, and we unconsciously use it all the time. It has roots in evolution; there are experiments that show that some animals are able to track the intentions of other members of their species, but the way it works in humans is far more pervasive and far-reaching.


Another aspect is that we can reflect on our thoughts; I call it the human superpower. Again, it’s not only present in humans, but we humans have really pushed ahead with it. It enables us to collaborate, to create institutions and to hold people to account with threats of punishment and so on.


So, it's not just tracking mental states, it’s also reflecting on them and possibly manipulating them. Teaching, which we think is a unique human competence, depends on knowing what the other person doesn't know. That is mentalizing, and it’s such an efficient way of conveying many people's experience to the next generation.



If you only have people around you who are like yourself (...) you might together quickly come up with an idea – but it’s unlikely to be the best.



This brings us nicely to the idea academia and of diversity in academia, in which you take a keen interest. Why do you think it’s important?

If you only have people around you who are like yourself and you’re trying to find a solution to a problem, you might together quickly come up with an idea – but it’s unlikely to be the best. If you want better solutions, you need to combine different points of view. An interesting demonstration of this is the devil’s advocate experiment: you talk against your own expressed opinion. If you do it well, you can see the weak points which otherwise wouldn’t occur to you.


You get this for free when you talk with people of different backgrounds. But there is a snag. It’s much more difficult to do this compared to talking only to people who are similar to you. We like the feeling of “we’re all on the same wavelength”. That’s nice for social occasions but not for solving problems. You need to have effortful, even painful, discussions sometimes, and that’s what happens when you get very diverse people talking to each other.



And do you think knowing about social cognition might be able to help us improve diversity?

It can help us understand biases. It’s been shown that biases cannot be trained away, but we need to be aware of them and there are some effective means. What’s helpful is to get some prompting just before you have to make a decision about, for example, whom to select for a prize or for employment or promotion.  It’s easy to always go for people like yourself but it’s not always the best choice. Names come to mind just because they are from your own small circle. That’s why I think AcademiaNet is so brilliant, because you can say: give me some names. And you suddenly think, oh my God, I thought there were no women in engineering.



And that would be a huge mistake! We couldn’t agree more. Thanks very much for speaking to us.   (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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