Posts Tagged ‘Theory of Mind’

Super-you: We’re All Reading Each Others Minds, All the Time

December 13, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This mind reading piece is written by Gilead Amit.  As Amit notes,being able to predict what other people think is the secret sauce of culture and social connections.

According to psychologist Joseph Call we all possess a “theory of mind” that informs us every waking moment.  “When we get dressed in the morning, we’re constantly thinking about what other people think about us.”  He says that no other animal can match our ability to think about the minds of others and that this is the essential lubricant for social interactions that sets humans apart.  We humans are not unique in this ability, but our ability is superior to other species.

Artists need to imagine what their audiences will think of their characters.  A theory of mind is critical to compelling TV soaps, sculptures or books.  Some think William Shakespeare had a particularly well-developed theory of mind to create such rich, complex characters (See “Shakespeare:  Unleashing a tempest in the brain” by David Robson in the 15 April 2014 issue of the New Scientist).

Mind reading establishes society norms.  People not only respond to what we do, but to what we intend to do.  For example, if you hit someone with your car, the difference between a verdict of murder or manslaughter depends on your intent.

Psychologist Rory Devine notes that we can’t all read minds equally well.  Most of us have difficulty when attempting nested levels of mind reading.  For example, think of Sally hunting for her cake, but imagine where she might look if we take into account  what she thinks about how Andy’s mind works.  The more recursive steps we add, the more  difficult it becomes.  Call says, “When you go beyond five levels, people get really bad.  HM does not believe that he can get even close to four levels, much less five.

Obviously being a good mind reader is an important skill.  Children who are relatively proficient later report being less lonely and their teachers rate them as more sociable.

Devine says that that “the ability to read minds is something we might learn gradually from the guidance of others.”  This mind reading apparatus mostly develops before the age of 5, and the principal factor that determines its development is whether our families and friends talk much about the emotions and motivations of others.

Perhaps the first step is to think about what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes.  Devine and his colleagues showed that this learning can continue far beyond early childhood.  When they asked 9 and 10 year old children to read and discuss short vignettes about social situations, the children developed better mind reading skills than children in a control group.  It appears that we’re never too old to be a better mind reader.  Similar improvements have also been seen in people over the age of 60.


Super-You: You Have a Superstitious Mind—to Protect You

December 12, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there is a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This superstitious mind piece is written by Graham Lawton.  Lawton writes, “The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three.”  Nevertheless, among the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non belief.  Conservative estimates are that half a billion people around the world are non-religious.

However, among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep.  Should you scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll likely find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.

Lawton writes that this is because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, make us very receptive to religious concepts.  Psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia says, “there are core intuitions that make supernatural beliefs easy for our brains.”

One of our cognitive abilities is known as theory of mind which enables us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts.  That’s certainly useful for a social species like us, but it also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own.  The idea that mind and body are distinct entities seems to come instinctively to us.  When teleology —the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere and see purposes where there is none—it is obvious why the human brain is superstitious (See the healthymemory blog post (“Thinking 2.0).

Presumably these same thought processes underlie beliefs supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards.  Three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs.

Lawton writes, “With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work.  Overriding inbuilt thought patterns require deliberate and constant effort, plus a learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong.  Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, will power often fails us.”

Experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves skeptics.  Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers answer “yes”.  People who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are frequently attributed to paranormal phenomena.

Of course, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts.  The supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resits.  It is likely that the belief that we are rational creatures is wishful thinking.

One can argue that Pascal’s Wager does provide a rational justification for a belief in God.   See the healthymemory blog post  “God.”

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