Dr Toby Nicholson
Toby currently works as a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Associate on an ESRC funded project with Professor David Williams investigating the link between Metacognition and Mindreading in Autism Spectrum Disorder. The project will examine the extent to which (i) these two abilities have the same underlying basis, (ii) individuals with ASD show diminished metacognition.
Toby's research interests include Social cognition, Social neuroscience, Mindreading, Metacognition, Action prediction and Moral psychology.
Grants and Awards
Carpenter, K., Williams, D., & Nicholson, T. (2019). Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth is: Examining Metacognition in ASD Using Post-decision Wagering. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04118-6It has been argued that metacognition and mindreading rely on the same cognitive processes (Carruthers in The opacity of mind: an integrative theory of self-knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011). It is widely accepted that mindreading is diminished among individuals diagnosed with autism (Brunsdon and Happé in Autism 18(1):17–30, 2014), however, little is known about metacognition. This study examined metacognition in relation to mindreading and autism using post-decision wagering. Results from a student sample showed negative associations between autism traits and metacognitive accuracy, and metacognitive reaction times and mindreading. These findings were replicated in a general population sample, providing evidence of a reliable association between metacognition, mindreading and autism traits. However, adults diagnosed with autism showed equivalent levels of metacognitive accuracy to age- and IQ-matched comparison participants, albeit only with an overall increase in meta-level processing time.
Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Grainger, C., Lind, S., & Carruthers, P. (2019). Relationships between implicit and explicit uncertainty monitoring and mindreading: Evidence from autism spectrum disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 70, 11-24. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2019.01.013We examined performance on implicit (non-verbal) and explicit (verbal) uncertainty-monitoring tasks among neurotypical participants and participants with autism, while also testing mindreading abilities in both groups. We found that: (i) performance of autistic participants was unimpaired on the implicit uncertainty-monitoring task, while being significantly impaired on the explicit task; (ii) performance on the explicit task was correlated with performance on mindreading tasks in both groups, whereas performance on the implicit uncertainty-monitoring task was not; and (iii) performance on implicit and explicit uncertainty-monitoring tasks was not correlated. The results support the view that (a) explicit uncertainty-monitoring draws on the same cognitive faculty as mindreading whereas (b) implicit uncertainty-monitoring only test first-order decision making. These findings support the theory that metacognition and mindreading are underpinned by the same meta-representational faculty/resources, and that the implicit uncertainty-monitoring tasks that are frequently used with non-human animals fail to demonstrate the presence of metacognitive abilities.
Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Carpenter, K., & Kallitsounaki, A. (2019). Interoception is Impaired in Children, But Not Adults, with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04079-wInteroception (the ability to sense what’s going on inside one’s body) is considered integral to many higher-order cognitive processes. Some have speculated that impaired interoception may underpin some features of ASD. Yet, in Experiment 1, we found no evidence of a between-group difference in either cardiac or respiratory interoceptive accuracy among 21 adults with ASD and 21 matched controls. Bayesian analyses suggested the data strongly supported the null hypothesis. In Experiment 2, we measured cardiac interoceptive accuracy in 21 children with ASD and 21 matched controls. Here interoceptve accuracy was significantly diminished in the ASD group and was associated with a moderate-to-large effect size. Results suggest early interoception difficulties are resolved or compensated for by adulthood in people with ASD.
Williams, D., Nicholson, T., Grainger, C., Lind, S., & Carruthers, P. (2018). Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 11, 1129-1137. doi:10.1002/aur.1962Detection of deception is of fundamental importance for everyday social life and might require “mindreading” (the ability to represent others’ mental states). People with diminished mindreading, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), might be at risk of manipulation because of lie detection difficulties. In Experiment 1, performance among 216 neurotypical adults on a realistic lie detection paradigm was significantly negatively associated with number of ASD traits, but not with mindreading ability. Bayesian analyses complemented null hypothesis significance testing and suggested the data supported the alternative hypothesis in this key respect. Cross validation of results was achieved by randomly splitting the full sample into two subsamples of 108 and rerunning analyses. The association between lie detection and ASD traits held in both subsamples, showing the reliability of findings. In Experiment 2, lie detection was significantly impaired in 27 adults with a diagnosis of ASD relative to 27 matched comparison participants. Results suggest that people with ASD (or ASD traits) may be particularly vulnerable to manipulation and may benefit from lie detection training.
Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Grainger, C., Christensen, J., Calvo-Merino, B., & Gaigg, S. (2018). Interoceptive impairments do not lie at the heart of autism or alexithymia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127, 612-622. doi:10.1037/abn0000370Quattrocki and Friston (2014) argued that abnormalities in interoception—the process of representing one’s internal physiological states—could lie at the heart of autism, because of the critical role interoception plays in the ontogeny of social-affective processes. This proposal drew criticism from proponents of the alexithymia hypothesis, who argue that social-affective and underlying interoceptive impairments are not a feature of autism per se, but of alexithymia (a condition characterized by difficulties describing and identifying one’s own emotions), which commonly co-occurs with autism. Despite the importance of this debate for our understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and of the role of interoceptive impairments in psychopathology, more generally, direct empirical evidence is scarce and inconsistent. Experiment 1 examined in a sample of 137 neurotypical (NT) individuals the association among autistic traits, alexithymia, and interoceptive accuracy (IA) on a standard heartbeat-tracking measure of IA. In Experiment 2, IA was assessed in 46 adults with ASD (27 of whom had clinically significant alexithymia) and 48 NT adults. Experiment 1 confirmed strong associations between autistic traits and alexithymia, but yielded no evidence to suggest that either was associated with interoceptive difficulties. Similarly, Experiment 2 provided no evidence for interoceptive impairments in autistic adults, irrespective of any co-occurring alexithymia. Bayesian analyses consistently supported the null hypothesis. The observations pose a significant challenge to notions that interoceptive impairments constitute a core feature of either ASD or alexithymia, at least as far as the direct perception of interoceptive signals is concerned.
Williams, D., Nicholson, T., & Grainger, C. (2018). The self-reference effect on perception: Undiminished in adults with autism and no relation to autism traits. Autism Research, 11, 331-341. doi:10.1002/aur.1891Memory for (and perception of) information about the self is superior to memory for (and perception of) other kinds of information. This self-reference effect (SRE) in memory appears diminished in ASD and related to the number of ASD traits manifested by neurotypical individuals (fewer traits = larger SRE). Here, we report the first experiments exploring the relation between ASD and the SRE in perception. Using a “Shapes” Task (Sui et al., 2012), participants learned to associate three different shapes (triangle, circle, square) with three different labels representing self, a familiar other, or an unfamiliar other (e.g., “you”, “mother”, “stranger”). Participants then completed trials during which they were presented with one shape and one label for 100ms, and made judgements about whether the shape and label were a match. In Experiment 1, neurotypical participants (n=124) showed the expected SRE, detecting self-related matches more reliably and quickly than matches involving familiar or unfamiliar other. Most important, number of ASD traits was unrelated to the size of the SRE for either accuracy or RT. Bayesian association analyses strongly supported the null hypothesis. In Experiment 2, there were no differences between 22 adults with ASD and 21 matched comparison adults in performance on the Shapes Task. Despite showing large and significant theory of mind impairments, participants with ASD showed the typical SRE and there were no associations with ASD traits in either group. In every case, Bayesian analyses favoured the null hypothesis. These findings challenge theories about self-representation in ASD, as discussed in the paper.