Axiom, Anguish, and Amazement: How Autistic Traits Modulate Emotional Mental Imagery
Date of Issue2016
College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Individuals differ in their ability to feel their own and others’ internal states, with those that have more autistic and less empathic traits clustering at the clinical end of the spectrum. However, when we consider semantic competence, this group could compensate with a higher capacity to imagine the meaning of words referring to emotions. This is indeed what we found when we asked people with different levels of autistic and empathic traits to rate the degree of imageability of various kinds of words. But this was not the whole story. Individuals with marked autistic traits demonstrated outstanding ability to imagine theoretical concepts, i.e., concepts that are commonly grasped linguistically through their definitions. This distinctive characteristic was so pronounced that, using tree-based predictive models, it was possible to accurately predict participants’ inclination to manifest autistic traits, as well as their adherence to autistic profiles – including whether they fell above or below the diagnostic threshold – from their imageability ratings. We speculate that this quasi-perceptual ability to imagine theoretical concepts represents a specific cognitive pattern that, while hindering social interaction, may favor problem solving in abstract, non-socially related tasks. This would allow people with marked autistic traits to make use of perceptual, possibly visuo-spatial, information for “higher” cognitive processing.
Frontiers in Psychology
© 2016 Esposito, Dellantonio, Mulatti and Job. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.