Looking back

My mentors Beate Hermelin and Neil O'Connor

When I came to London

I came to London in the early 1960's, when it was known as 'swinging' London, but that was not the reason I came. I wanted to learn English. However, I soon decided that what I really wanted was to continue my education here. I remember walking along Gower Street and thinking how ugly-strange the Georgian terraced houses looked, but yet how stylishly beautiful. University College was the place where I would strive to be. Little did I know then that I would be there for some forty years. But first I had to say good-bye to my fond plans to live in Paris and be a student at the famous Sorbonne. Such were the dreams of a country girl.

I was bowled over by the amazing atmosphere of London, the museums, the science, social life in general. I was already a little bit in love with English life and culture through my avid reading of detective novels by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and fell totally in love once I met my very English husband. I have been happily married since 1966 and have more or less adapted to English culture. I learned English nursery rhymes and some delightful children's books together with my children. Still, I never lost my accent and I never gave up my German citizenship. 

I am constantly amazed and deeply grateful to my host country that my career as an academic psychologist has never been hampered by being a foreigner, and that I have been elected fellow of the British Academy as well as the Royal Society. I was stunned when I was recently awarded an honorary DBE. Nothing could have prepared me for this amazing honour. I am still learning about the nuances of language and the social and historical background of London in particular. I love English houses, gardens, and parks, even if I sometimes miss the German forests, mountains and ruined castles and, of course, the bakeries. 

How I got into the field of Autism

How can I understand myself better? A question asked by many adolescents was also my start of getting interested in psychology. How does the mind work? What does it mean to say the mind is created by the brain? Since my student days in experimental psychology I have been passionately interested in these sorts of questions. Pathology was the obvious way to get at possible answers and I trained to be a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Here I met for the first time autistic children. They were completely fascinating. I wanted to find out what makes them behave so strangely with other people, and what made them so totally untouched by the kind of everyday communication we take for granted. I still want to find out! Because even a life-time of research is not enough to get to the bottom of the enigma that is autism.

I was fortunate to be able to carry out psychological experiments with some pioneers in the field, Beate Hermelin and Neil O’Connor. They had opened a door by developing designs that allowed comparison of different groups of typically and atypically developing children. For example, they showed that rote memory could be excellent but memory for meaning was poor in autistic children, and that both types of memory could be poor in children who had general intellectual impairment.

I wanted to know why autistic individuals even when they had good language, were so difficult to involve in a conversation. The concept of ‘Theory of mind’ was just then being developed by brining together studies from animal behavior, philosophy, and developmental psychology. It seemed to me and my then colleagues Alan Leslie and Simon Baron-Cohen of extreme interest to autism, possibly the key to their social impairments. And so it proved to be. We started systematic behavioural experiments in the 1980s and showed that autistic individuals indeed do not show spontaneous ‘mentalising’. That is, they do not automatically attribute psychological motives or mental states to others to explain their behavior. As soon as neuroimaging methods became available we scanned autistic adults and revealed the brain’s mentalising system. This work is still ongoing. 

Why I like cognitive psychology/ neuropsychology/ neuroscience

I started out as a cognitive psychologist and this has been foundational to prizing open the black box and to explore the architecture of the mind. Cognition is another word for mind and it includes feelings as well as abstract thought. Everything the mind does is cognitive by definition.  A short description of what the mind/brain does is that it processes information. It has to do this processing from moment to moment and extremely fast, because the purpose is to predict what to do next. The mind/ brain has been called a prediction engine. Without such a model it would be meaningless to poke around in brain matter. 

Cognitive neuropsychology was a great inspiration to me. Here patients with lesions of the brain were tested with ingenious tests. For example, one type of patient was able to read familiar words but not made up words, while another type of patient showed exactly the reverse. This example gave clues that the mind is not an impenetrable web of billions of neurons, but is made up of separable information processing modules. The unit of interest is not the neuron, but specific networks of neurons. For example, there are two ways to reading, one based on knowledge of word forms, the other based on the alphabetic code. Even though the children I saw did not have holes in the head, I felt I was guessing at holes in the mind. These holes allow us to guess how the mind is made up. Ingenious tasks that contrast social and nonsocial stimuli can show just as stunning dissociations as reading tasks that contrast familiar and made-up words. 

Hauke Hillebrandt,
24 Aug 2009, 02:22