Experience Invalidation: Telepathy and ToM

*shocked gasp* I never knew there were telepaths living among us!

How many times have you heard someone say a variation of, “Oh, c’mon, it’s not that” [or “It’s not at all”] “loud/bright/smelly/painful/bad-tasting/etc!”?

This is a classic case of experience invalidation: Someone saying that because they don’t experience stimuli and perceive the world the same way you do, your way does not actually exist in reality.

I’m a science fiction reader and writer. My first response to that (well, the response I go to once I process what’s been implied, and get past the shock of How DARE they?!) is, “Oh, so you’re a telepath.”

My second response is, “Oh, so despite being neurotypical, you utterly fail at Theory of Mind.”

What’s “Theory of Mind”? I quote from Dictionary.com:

1. Psychology, Philosophy. [T]he ability to interpret one’s own and other people’s mental and emotional states, understanding that each person has unique motives, perspectives, etc.:
People with autism seem to lack theory of mind.
Abbreviation: ToM, TOM.
— “theory of mind”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 26 Jul. 2016. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/theory-of-mind>.

[The bolding of the example sentence is my edit. Beware, oncoming rant/soapbox! – Wikipedia references autism in “deficits of theory of mind” as well.]

“Oh, wait!” that person cries. “But according to the definition, autistics lack theory of mind, not neurotypicals!”

Yeah, I’m kind of pissed off about that. Particularly as there have been studies, a lot more recent than Baron-Cohen’s work (the (in)famous Sally-Anne Test), that say that yes, autistics do have theory of mind – and empathy. There were a lot of potential confounding factors in the Sally-Anne Test, among them the problems of sensory issues, motivations and rewards, and the obvious lack of understanding on the part of the three researchers of the term delay. For more info and to read about a much more successful version of that sort of test – the Dot-Midge test – check out Unstrange Mind’s E is for Empathy. (Yes, it’s a post I recommended last year. I still recommend it.) Not to mention that autistics demonstrate a great deal of theory of mind when among other autistics. [/end rant]

Anyway, back to the issue in question, that of experience invalidation, and the matter of is this person a telepath, or do they lack theory of mind?

As far as I can tell, those are the only two possibilities for how they could actually get away with telling you that your experience is invalid. Either they can access your mind in some way and so know that you are lying about how you perceive the situation – or they don’t understand that other people have “unique motives, perspectives,” and perceptions. Therefore they, by definition, lack theory of mind.

No one has the right to tell you that your experience is invalid. People who try are either a science fiction phenomenon (and I want proof! SF has decades of books that tell us ways to prove telepathy!), or They Are Wrong.

😐 tagÂûght

[Edit: For anyone who is curious as to what prompted this – check out The Caffeinated Autistic’s Disability representation: Do it right (Or The Case of John Watson’s disappearing PTSD), and then go to Alyssa’s Writing Accidentally Autistic Characters, and check out the links she gives there. Read those this afternoon, and the first paragraph popped into my head. It all followed from there.]

4 thoughts on “Experience Invalidation: Telepathy and ToM

    • *snrks wryly* It didn’t hurt that most of the links from Alyssa’s post had references to SF stories.

  1. There is a third possibility, which I will call “knowledge invalidation”. A person may have scientific or medical knowledge that makes a person’s claim impossible (with the current state of scientific knowledge) or implausible. I feel it would then be perfectly reasonable to doubt the person’s claim (but not necessarily say it is impossible).

    Of course, the state of our knowledge advances all the time — for example, we now know there are people who see colours when they hear certain sounds which we would once have highly doubted.

    I am pretty sure I have fallen victim, or perhaps I should say I have victimized other people, because of experience invalidation. Hopefully I am now more knowledgeable and open-minded than I used to be.


    • Hm. Part of the problem with that is that one’s experience and perceptions are so subjective, so dependent on how their physiology and neurology interact, that even now with fMRIs and the like, we still don’t know exactly what is going on in someone’s head unless they tell us (through whatever method of communication works best).

      I can accept knowledge invalidation regarding plausibility, I suppose, sort of…. It does depend on whether the person in question tries to at least keep an open mind, and realizes that they don’t know everything. I would be more inclined to accept a comment about the implausibility of my experience from someone who I know has that open-mindedness than someone I don’t know, or someone that I know doesn’t demonstrate open-mindedness.

      At the same time, I suspect that someone fitting the description for open-mindedness would be less likely to say, “No, you’re wrong about the statement that you’re experiencing [this]”, whatever [this] may be, and more likely to ask questions to find out more about what you think/feel you are experiencing. In other words, someone who is open-minded isn’t likely to make comments that are experience invalidating in the first place.

      I guess part of what I’m trying to say is that someone who tends to react as described in this post, in terms of experience invalidation, is judging the person who is having that experience. More than anything, it’s that judgement that you want to short-circuit, because that’s where things like discrimination (ableism, racism, homophobia, etc.) come into play. They are saying that you are wrong, and that what you are experiencing cannot possibly be true, because they are not experiencing it the same way.

      Hope this made some sense, at least, Papa.

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