Dr. Grossi's Blog

The Other, Part II

Dr. Philip Grossi
Saturday, 14 August 2010

Premack and Woodruff''s 1978 article "Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?" raised this question when they demonstrated that chimpanzees and possibly other primates could read intentions.  Subsequent findings showed that primates are quite sophisticated and can form alliances, deceive, and bear grudges (sound a little like Othello?)  They can even tell what other chimpanzees can and cannot see.  Still proof that they have a theory of mind is incomplete.  Theory of mind is defined as the ability to attribute to oneself and others intents, desires, feelings, knowledge, deceptions, and beliefs that are separate and divergent from one's own.

Much research has been centered on the false-belief testing, often called the 'Sally-Anne' task.  Sally has a candy that she puts in a basket and then leaves the room.  While she is out of the room Anne takes the candy out of the basket and places in into a box.  Anne is then asked where Sally will look for the candy when she returns.  She passes if she responds the basket.  Until the age of 5 or so children fail the test and say the box.  In order to get this problem right the child has to perform a mental feat which is to understand Sally's intentions and beliefs, whether accurate or not, and use that to predict the action.  Most children with autism cannot pass this test. We are the only species that can infer what someone else is thinking.  How do you get a thought from one person's brain to another person's brain?

illustration to  other II blogSince children from all parts of the world acquire this ability at about the same age and with comparable developmental landmarks, that suggests that it is a separate adaptation and not part of general intelligence.  Some psychologists theorize that this ability is important in the evolution of language because learning words is much easier when you know what your parents are referring to or trying to teach.  

Other experiments have been done.  Helen Gallagher designed an experiment based on the game "rock, scissors, paper." Rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock.  Subjects were put in a scanner and told either that they were playing against someone else or a computer.  In follow up interviews, the subjects who thought they were playing against a human disclosed that they tried to figure out the opponent's strategy.  The scans showed activation of a small area above the eyes known as the paracingulate region.  This suggests that this region is involved in separating one mind from the other, our beliefs from the beliefs and intention of the other.  More recent research on the neural basis of theory of mind has diversified and focused on areas of beliefs, intentions, psychological traits, animations, attentional reorienting, and false understanding and these have implicated a variety of other brain areas.  Discussion of these research efforts go beyond my effort here.

From an evolutionary standpoint the involved neural networks were probably favored by natural selection because understanding and predicting predators' behavior would have definite survival value and thus increase the fitness of those making the most accurate predictions. Understanding mental states is the best way to predict what the other will do next. The evolutionary value of self-reflection is unclear unless the comparison of self to other enhances accuracy.

Check out Rebecca Saxe ...