Simon Baron-Cohen

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Simon Baron-Cohen

Residence England
Nationality British
Fields Psychologist
Institutions University of Cambridge
Alma mater New College, Oxford
University College London
King's College London
Known for Autism research

Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.[1] He is best known for his work on autism, including his early theory that autism involves degrees of "mindblindness" (or delays in the development of theory of mind); and his later theory that autism is an extreme form of the "male brain", which involved a reconceptualization of typical psychological sex differences in terms of empathizing–systemizing theory.


[edit] Education

Baron-Cohen has an MA degree in Human Sciences from New College, Oxford, a PhD in Psychology from University College London, and an M.Phil. in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.

[edit] Research areas

Baron-Cohen was co-author of the first study to show that children with autism have delays in the development of a theory of mind (ToM) (Cognition, 1985),[2] a finding that has had a deep influence not only in clinical psychology and psychiatry but in developmental and cognitive psychology more broadly, as well as in allied disciplines (neuroscience, philosophy of mind, linguistics, evolutionary psychology, behavioural genetics, primatology and anthropology). This is because a ToM is fundamental to being human, enabling flexible social interaction, communication and empathy, so the identification of a genetically-based neurological condition in which ToM is specifically impaired strongly suggests that ToM is biological and modular, with a unique evolutionary history.

Baron-Cohen’s research over the subsequent 10 years provided a considerable amount of evidence for the ToM deficit, culminating in two edited anthologies (Understanding Other Minds, 1993, and 2000). He traced the origins of the ToM deficit backwards in development to joint attention (Brit J. Dev Psychol, 1987), and put forward an influential model of the development of ‘mindreading’ in his widely cited monograph (Mindblindness, 1995). He showed the application of the model to early diagnosis of autism at 18 months old, absence of joint attention being a key predictor of later autism (Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1992, 1996).[3] And he was the first to demonstrate the role of two key brain regions involved in ToM: the orbito-frontal cortex (Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1994) and the amygdala (Euro. J. Neuroscience, 1999), the latter leading him to propose the important amygdala theory of autism (Neurosci. Behav. Rev. 2000).

In the late 1990’s Baron-Cohen turned to the puzzle of why autism affects males more than females, leading him to put forward a new theory of the psychology of typical sex differences (the empathizing–systemizing theory) and its extension, the theory that autism is an extreme of the male brain (J. Cog. Neurosci, 1997; TICS, 2002). This led to him situating ToM within the broader domain of empathy, and to the development of a new construct (systemizing). The extreme male brain (EMB) theory of autism has attracted wide attention for several reasons: It sees autism as being on a continuum with individual differences in the general population (sex differences); it suggests the cause of autism at a biological level may be hyper-masculinization; and it recasts certain features of autism (‘obsessions’ and repetitive behaviour, previously regarded as ‘purposeless’) as being highly purposive, intelligent (hyper-systemizing), and a sign of a different way of thinking. He has traced strong systemizing to its simpler prerequisites of excellent attention to detail and more recently, sensory hypersensitivity. He also educated the wider public by writing a popular science book on this topic (The Essential Difference, 2003).

At the same time, Baron-Cohen launched the unique Cambridge Longitudinal Foetal Testosterone (FT) Project, a research program following children whose mothers had had amniocentesis, as an opportunity to study the effects of individual differences in FT on later child development. This is summarized in a technical monograph (Prenatal Testosterone in Mind, 2004). He has shown that FT is negatively correlated with social and language development, and is positively correlated with attention to detail and a number of autistic traits (Brit. J. Psychology, 2009). His work studying FT enables him to test the hyper-masculinization of autism not just at the psychometric level, but also at the level of developmental neurobiology (Science, 2005). (The Guardian newspaper (January 12th 2009) misrepresented this study as being a prenatal screening test for autism, whereas in fact it is a study of individual differences in typically developing children. The Guardian published a correction this effect (January 20th 2009). Baron-Cohen's actual views on pre-natal screening for autism are clearly anti-eugenics (Community Care Magazine, January 13th 2009)).

Finally, along the way, Baron-Cohen has developed tools for special education arising out of basic science. He and his colleagues have designed education software (Mindreading)[4] and a children’s animation (The Transporters)[5] both of which were BAFTA nominated for their quality and which have been scientifically evaluated to show that simple, fun teaching methods that harness the child’s strong systemizing can lead to improvements in aspects of empathy (emotion recognition).

Baron-Cohen has also conducted research on synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a sensation in one modality (e.g., hearing) triggers a perception in another modality (e.g., colour). He and his colleagues were the first to develop the Test of Genuineness (Perception, 1987) and suggest that synaesthesia is the result of a breakdown in modularity (Perception, 1993). He and his colleagues were also the first to confirm the reality of synaesthesia using neuroimaging (Brain, 1995) and to confirm that the V4/V8 (the colour cortex) was active when coloured-hearing synaesthetes listen to tones whilst blind-folded (Nature Neuroscience, 2002). He and his colleagues also first demonstrated the heritability of synaesthesia (Perception, 1996) and conducted the first genetic linkage study of synaesthesia (American Journal of Human Genetics, 2009).

[edit] Personal life

Simon Baron-Cohen has three children, one of whom is the independent film maker Sam Baron. His brothers are film director Ash Baron Cohen and Dan Baron Cohen (International Drama and Education Association). His sisters include acupuncturist Aliza Baron Cohen. His first cousins are Amnon Baron Cohen (computer scientist), Erran Baron Cohen, composer and musician, and comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen.[6] His grandfather's brother was Robert Greenblatt, professor of endocrinology at the Medical College of Georgia, whose research led to the development of the oral contraceptive pill.[7]

In April 2008 he was a guest on Private Passions, the biographical music discussion programme hosted by Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3.[8]

[edit] Selected publications

[edit] Books

Simon Baron-Cohen's books include Mindblindness (MIT Press, 1995), The Essential Difference (Penguin, 2003) and most recently Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts (OUP, 2008). He has edited three books, including Understanding Other Minds (OUP, 1993), with a second edition in 2001; an anthology on synaesthesia called Synaesthesia: Classic and contemporary readings (Erlbaum, 1997) and a collection that stimulated the new field of evolutionary psychopathology, The Maladapted Mind (Blackwells, 1997).

[edit] Papers

Baron-Cohen has authored over 200 peer-reviewed papers ( Some examples include:

Baron-Cohen, S, Cox, A, Baird, G, Swettenham, J, Drew, A, Nightingale, N, Morgan, K, & Charman, T, (1996) Psychological markers of autism at 18 months of age in a large population. British Journal of Psychiatry, 168, 158-163.

Baron-Cohen, S, Ring, H, Wheelwright, S, Bullmore, E, Brammer, M, Simmons, A, & Williams, S, (1999) Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: an fMRI study. European Journal of Neuroscience, 11, 1891-1898.

Baron-Cohen, S, Knickmeyer, R, & Belmonte, M (2005) Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism. Science, 310, 819-823.

  • Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004). "The Empathy Quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences". J Autism Dev Disord 34 (2): 163–75. doi:10.1023/B:JADD.0000022607.19833.00. PMID 15162935. 

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ ARC people: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director. Autism Research Centre. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  2. ^ Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U (1985). "Does the autistic child have a 'theory of mind'?" (PDF). Cognition 21 (1): 37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8. PMID 2934210. Retrieved on 2008-02-16. 
  3. ^ CHAT - The Checklist for Autism In Toddlers. University of Washington. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  4. ^ Mind Reading. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  5. ^ Home page. The Transporters. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  6. ^ Biography for Sacha Baron Cohen. IMDb. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  7. ^ Mahesh, Virenda B. [ Robert B. Greenblatt (1906-1987) The New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2006-02-10. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
  8. ^ Radio 3: "Private Passions".

[edit] External links

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