The Different Colors of the Mind

dr. Rachel Brezis
Dr. Rachel Brezis


Dr. Rachel Brezis has a BA in Psychology with a minor in Anthropology and Cognitive Science which she obtained at Hebrew University. Dr. Brezis also has a MA and PhD in Comparative Human Development where she received both at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Brezis is current position is at the Center for Culture and Health at the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles. Her main focus of research currently is Autism Spectrum Disorder in India and the United States.

Dr. Brezis dissertation was titled: Social and Non-Social Memory in Adolescents with Autism: At the juncture of biological, cognitive and social development. Her research interests are in Autism; autobiographical, episode, and semantic memory; neuropsychology; MRI; adolescence; cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience; in Israel and India. Dr. Brezis also speaks French and Hebrew, along with English, of course.



To begin with, I believe we all interpret and interact in our cultural environment in many different ways which helps us make sense of the world around us; just some of us have a little difficulty in processing that raw data to create meaning to our lives. Children and adults with autism are examples of individuals who have a hard time in creating that meaning. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the social and communication skills of a person, and is followed by ritualized behaviors. Dr. Brezis suggests that attempts have been made to trace this type of behavioral manifestations of autism to particular brain regions, recent anatomical and functional imaging studies are pointing to a deficit in brain connectivity. Autistic people may have a glitch in the way they processing information to create meaning.

According to Dr. Brezis, autism is a condition that fundamentally disrupts the junction between self and others, or self and culture, autism provides a unique lens onto the process of acculturation. Acculturation is a modification in a culture group or individual by adapting or borrowing traits from another culture. According to Dr. Brezis, some theories suggest that since people with autism have problems in processing others thoughts, they are incapable of religious belief. To some theorists, people with autism cannot link meaning to events that happen in the world. For instance, if a person was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and all of a sudden got better, it was because of some overseeing force that controls everyone’s destiny.

Some theories suggest that any religious practices autistic people are involved in are mechanical and interpersonal, and are unable to attach real self meaning to that religion. But with recent research done by Dr. Brezis, this may not be the case. Maybe through acculturation individuals with autism may have found a way to interpret and interact with a higher power. Through a string of interviews, that Brezis conducted, with children and adults with autism and Asperser’s syndrome, and of Jewish religion, Jewish because, according to Brezis, its special emphasis on the behavioral performance of biblical commandments and their derivations, despite its lack of an explicit credo, Dr. Brezis came to a conclusion, that these individuals, as Brezis calls it, displayed a sense of an agentive God who gives meaning to the world and events in it.

Brezis revealed through a series of interview questions, questions involving background, simple descriptive questions, questions related to their parents degree of religious practice, and tracing their religious education to see if their religious practices had changed over time and if their religious practice were driven by their own choice, Brezis came to the conclusion, that autistic individuals do have a sense of a higher power and can link that agentive God to an event that establishes meaning. In one interview, a young boy claimed he spent all his money on a bicycle, and did not have any money left but said that God would provide for him. And after a awhile, he was offered two jobs. He contributed him having a job to a higher power. This demonstrates that autistic people can, and do, have a sense of an agentive God and can connect events to a higher power.

Brezis also claims that in reviewing her transcripts she discovered a week sense of self in autistic individuals, and that they use narratives of personal interest to create or construct their identities.


As autistic people may use cultural surrounding to create colorful scripts to determine religious meaning, the average person, whatever average means, creates alternative ways to learn, such as, the three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Each learning style has its own cultural flair to help people process that raw data to create meaning, to help educate that person. Someone with a visual learning style may use graphs and body language when learning. Individuals who learn through auditory learning do better with hearing and listening forms of education, while others do better with a hands-on approach, which is called a kinesthetic type of learning. We all use colorful scripts to help us create and understand the world we live in. I really liked the way Dr. Brezis puts it, using a metaphor, “because of the unique pattern of abilities and disabilities associated with autism, the condition may be seen as a reflective prism through which the white light of culture is broken down into its myriad color components.” Rather than blocking certain elements of culture, the autistic mind pushes that person to use cultural resources creatively, coloring the cultural scripts that they appropriate with new hues. We all see and learn things in different colors, and those colors help us all to discover the meaning to the lives in which we live.

theory of mind

8 thoughts on “The Different Colors of the Mind”

  1. I found the last part of your post to be very interesting. I had never really thought of autism in that way. I frequently babysit an autistic kid, and it is sometimes difficult to understand what he is thinking because I can not relate to it in any way most of the time. It makes sense to think of it as him getting all of the same information, but just using it and putting it together differently. It always amazes me that he is able to remember things for such a long amount of time, especially dates, so I wonder if the ways he associates things makes it easier for him to remember certain things as well.

  2. I would be interested in at looking at the degree of belief in people with autism in religions other than the Jewish religion. Because the Jewish religion has such a large behavioral component, it might be easier for someone with autism to connect to it. Does the same level of belief occur in other, less behaviorally based, religions?

  3. Awesome review. My brother was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and it was especially hard for him to construct meaning with regard to future events . For example, he sometimes struggled in school because it was difficult for him to see the need to prepare, and the effects of his present actions on future events. So, I found it interesting in this study how meaning could be constructed in terms of religion. Also, the prism metaphor was interesting considering how my brother had to work so much harder for elements of culture that were second nature to those without autism.

  4. I do not have any significant amount of personal knowledge about people with autism. I have met and interacted with a few people with the disorder through out my life, specifically in junior high and high school, but I never really garnered any information on the topic or became aware of any prevailing theories in the field of study surrounding it. I find I to be a bit short sighted of researchers to say “incapable” when dealing with the brain, the organ in our bodies that we know the least about. I appreciate Brezis’ effort in actively pursuing an understanding of people with this disorder on their own terms. When we look at someone how is bad at math, we do not declare that they are unintelligent outright. The data is insufficient at that point to make that assumption. So to look at people who are neurologically challenged on a developmental level and declare that they are incapable of finding meaning is lazy science in my opinion. Our knowledge about the brain is constantly increasing, so to must our assumptions about the people that possess them, developmentally challenged or not.

  5. I like Brezis’s research but I’m not at all certain you can test for the ability to ‘believe.’ Even if an autistic person attributes getting a job to God, do they really mean it? All people, for that matter, say things like “feeling blessed” or “God willing” without actually giving a second thought to what they are saying. Now, I believe the Brezis’s point is that people with autism can in fact understand that there is a cause and effect link occurring. I am inclined to think that some if not all people with autism do have the ability to accept this causal link. Still, I’m not sure if Brezis’s research design is hardy enough to come to this conclusion. I would think that people with autism would gravitate toward religion because the structured nature of the ritual acts and services themselves provide stability in everyday life. For a lot of people, being a part of a religious community means going through the motions. I’m not convinced that any of us understand high powers or the “causes” of all the “effects” we feel on a daily basis. In that sense, we are all just taking what culture offers us and turning it into individual religious scripts.
    I remember our class discussion on dissociation. Everybody seemed pretty bummed out when we could only think of a few dissociative trances sanctioned by American culture. Getting drunk or high at a college party, dancing at a rave, and communing at a large festival were some of the few ideas we came up with. We hypothesized that this inaccessibility has a great effect on the drug use here in America. It seems that everyone needs an escape. Don’t hack it ’till you try it. Why would the ability to dissociate be selected for? I think this question may be answered if we distinguish between dissociation an repression of harmful memories. That way, we might be able to explain why dissociation could be helpful in the short term and not so helpful in the long term. No matter how long you avoid your problems, they are always going to be there when you return to reality. Again, with the question of dissociate we run up against structural violence. How a society treats people that are considered “other” makes a difference in how those people experience their “otherness.”

  6. After doing my research paper on autism, I find this subject much more interesting. I think that those who have autism are definitely finding alternate ways to learn outside of what is considered “normal.” I think that there is a lot that could be learned from those with autism. It is interesting to me that they are able to find these alternate ways and train their brain to do something that others do not immediately think of doing. The child I babysit is always coming up with different ways to do things the first time around that I would never have thought of, but that sometimes work just as well or better than they way I would have done things. I think there is still a lot that can be learned from the autistic mind that could help us to better understand them and even could help us to better understand how we work.

  7. Again, cannot find my original comment on this, but I remember choosing to comment on this one as we discussed it extensively in class. I always think that it is a bit shortsighted to attribute can’s and can’t’s to something we don;t understand and our lack of understanding on this subject is two fold. Firstly religion and higher powers are scientifically unfounded when I comes to creation stories. But lets say that the religious stories are true. They can be as real to an adult as a scary story is to a child. Needless to say we don’t really understand the reasons or scientific implications of religion. Also our knowledge of autism is always new and untested in many cases so I think rather than writing off these sufferer as incapable, Dr. Brezis may have a more solid scientific footing here.

  8. One thing I found missing from this study was an actual theory of the mind test performed on the autistic children. In all actuality, it is possible that the children who were better able to relate to God had some theory of the mind capability while those who were not as religious did not have any theory of the mind.

    On a different note, one comment that was made in the article really bothered me. A boy spent all his money on his bike, but was unconcerned because God would provide for him. He did end up getting a job, it is true, but it is this attitude that really annoys me. No matter if you are religious are not, it is my firm belief that you should try and provide for yourself and not wait for handouts from other people or mystical entities. While driving down the highway, I saw a billboard that depicted a man hanging off the edge of a cliff with the words “Jesus will catch you.” How about instead of letting himself fall down a cliff and hope that someone else would save him, he saves himself by climbing up the cliff?

    Back to the article at hand, I would be interested in seeing more studies that exemplify autistic people’s unique perception of the world. By examining those who are different, we can understand the basic process for everyone else.

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