Day By Day

Friday, April 29, 2005

Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds

That's what the headline says. Actually, the story is about conflicting theories regarding how the mind operates in social interactions. One of these , titled the "Theory Theory" says that people learn t0 anticipate how others will react by observing them and building up a theory of human behavior in their own minds [therefore the "theory theory," cute!]. Sometimes it is called the "Vulcan theory." [Aren't these guys cute with their pop culture references? On Star Trek Mr. Spock was constantly trying to logically figure out human interactions and failing.]
Theory theory describes children as budding social scientists. The idea is that children collect evidence -- in the form of gestures and expressions -- and use their everyday understanding of people to develop theories that explain and predict the mental state of people they come in contact with.

The alternative explanation, called the "simulation theory," posits

that we are natural mind readers. We place ourselves in another person's "mental shoes," and use our own mind as a model for theirs.

[A researcher] contends that when we interact with someone, we do more than just observe the other person's behavior. He believes we create internal representations of their actions, sensations and emotions within ourselves, as if we are the ones that are moving, sensing and feeling.

There seems to be some physical basis for this second theory -- clusters of "mirror neurons" that simulate in observers the reactions of neurons in people who are being observed.

I'm not sure what to make of this? It seems to me to be fairly obvious that people in social environments can both analyze others and empathize with them and that both capabilities can be invoked situationally. That there are neural structures associated with these mental processes is not surprising. So, other than a sexy headline, what do we have here? Not much!

Read the whole thing here.


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