Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thinking about Thoughts

The human mind does an incredible number of even more incredible things. Take, for example, the age old act of bartering. Whether trading ears of corn for livestock, or complex corporate negotiations, a large part of human enterprise has relied on our ability to think about others’ specific desires and intentions. We want what is best for us and our family or community, but realize that we need to compromise because the other party wants the same. Additionally, the other party may hold a grudge, or be ignorant towards current market values, and so on. All of this amazingly complex analysis happens at lightning speeds within the mind, while we haggle prices or make offers.

We use this complex ability every day, and it has drawn the attention of many scientists. According to MIT Professor Rebecca Saxe:

“Thinking about other minds is the foundation for both personal relationships and societal institutions, and the human capacities to read and write fiction, to teach skills and pass knowledge down generations, and to make moral judgments, especially to forgive accidents.”

The human brain and mind (which are not necessarily one and the same) are very active fields of research, and comparatively young. Saxe is one of many researchers investigating how we think about other peoples’ minds. A particularly elegant experiment done by H. Wimmer and J. Perner in 1983, dubbed the “Sally-Anne test.” According to Saxe:

“A preschooler is presented with [...] two main characters, Sally and Anne. He is told that Sally has a ball, that she has put the ball in a brown basket and gone outside; that Anne takes the ball from the basket and plays with it inside the house and then puts it in a green box; and that Sally is now coming back inside to get her ball. Where, he is asked, will Sally look for her ball?

We know that Sally will look for the ball in the brown basket: that is where she put it, and she thinks it is still there. Five-year-olds see it the same way: they breeze through the false-belief task. Not so three-year-olds. The younger children consistently predict the opposite: they expect Sally to look for her ball in the green box, where the ball really is. It's as if the three-year-olds cannot take Sally's (false) belief about the ball into account in predicting her behavior.”

So, somewhere along the line in human development, we learn how to think about people who have minds just like our own. This ability to infer and reason about another person's states of mind is called a 'Theory of Mind' (ToM). We can ask: “Do we learn our Theory of Mind from interactions with people, or is it an inherent, instinctual quality?” This is one of the questions that Saxe’s research hopes to address.

Concretely, Professor Saxe uses multiple kinds of brain imaging methods to see if there are specific mechanisms present in the physical brain that correspond to our ToM. For example, fMRI imaging combines normal MRI, which is capable of scanning the brain in incredible detail, with oxygen level analysis, which corresponds to activity in the brain. So, using fMRI scans, Saxe’s research can pinpoint areas of activity when subject are presented situations where they must employ their theory of mind.

“The brain regions involved in Theory of Mind are incredibly robust. We can find the same regions, in 90% of individual subjects, after just 20 minutes of scan time. [...] The 'Theory of Mind' regions thus offer a rare window through the brain to the mind.”

The implications of her work are far reaching. Philosophers have long debated the relationship between “the mind” and “the brain”, and this work may start to uncover the strings that hold them together. Additionally, her methods provide a window into things like Asperger Syndrome and Autism, where people experience severe difficulty in social situations where ToM is needed.

If you’re interested in Professor Saxe’s ideas you have an amazing opportunity to hear her talk about them this coming Friday evening, at “Big Ideas for Busy People!”. I heartily encourage you to attend; nothing compares to hearing the ideas straight from the visionaries themselves.

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