A Brief Review
Mindreading (also known as mentalizing, the intentional stance, or theory of mind) is the penchant of animals to represent the mental lives of one another. What are the beliefs and desires of those around us? A classic demonstration of mindreading comes from Heider & Simmel (1944):
While the mindreading faculty was designed to understand the minds of other animals, it had no trouble ascribing beliefs and goals to two dimensional shapes. This is roughly analogous to your email provider accepting a tennis ball as a login password.
Another classic demonstration of mindreading is the Sally-Anne test, from Baren-Cohen et al (1985):
Super-processes: Two Stages of Mindreading
In fact, Mindreading can be conceptualized as two interlocking systems.
- Stage 1: Goal Mindreading is capable of reasoning about goals and the perceptual access of other beings. It generates expectations on how people are likely to behave given their goals, and what they can see and hear.
- Stage 2: Representation Mindreading is capable of reasoning about the concepts of other beings. It is the engine associated with pretense, lie detection, and noticing errors in others.
From a developmental perspective, these two systems emerge at different times. Evidence adduced in Gergely et al (1994) reveal that goal mindreading emerges at twelve months. Ability to pass the Sally-Anne test arrives at 44 months, except in autistic children whose ability to pass is severely delayed, per Baren-Cohen et al (1985)). However, recent evidence suggests that representation mindreading arrives much earlier than 4 years of age: looking time studies demonstrate infants are surprised by violations of false-belief scenarios, which indicate their brains are generating the underlying expectancies.
From a comparative biology perspective, there is extensive evidence of goal mindreading in non-human animals, including primates, corvids and canids. Call & Tomasello (2008) reviews mindreading studies conducted on chimpanzees, demonstrating in great detail that chimpanzees generate behavior responsive to the goals they perceive in other living things.
However, at the time of this writing, most researchers agree there is negative evidence of representation mindreading.
Taking the evidence from ontology and phylogeny together, we can see the gradual accretion of mental faculties over time:
Sub-processes: Components of Mindreading
The goal mindreading versus representation mindreading is undeniably helpful. But it is too coarse to shed light on mechanism. More work needs to be done to identify the basis functions underlying mindreading. In the language of the theoretician’s quadrant, to move forward, we must engage in a Q3 exercise.
We have begun to sketch an outline of these basis functions during previous discussions of social phenomena.
- Social Behavior Network is an ancient faculty underlying sexual behavior, aggression, and parental care.
- Social Engagement System is an expression of polyvagal theory that explains how our facial musculature was recruited for social signaling.
- Language vs Communication explains how language is overlaid on top of the non-linguistic social engagement system.
- Argumentative Theory of Reasoning conceptualizes language as a more efficient vehicle for persuasion/evaluation and justification/evaluation.
- Gullible by Default explores the evaluation of arguments, showing how the ability to reject claims is a late addition to our cognitive toolkit.
- Counterfactual Simulation: Similar Until Proven Different explores the counterfactual mechanics of pretense, and how mindreading heavily relies on simulation.
- Agent Detection describes how agent detection relies on several more concrete faculties, such as face detection, movement detectors, and agent files.
- Intro to Goal Mindreading describes how equifinality might inform our ability to detect goals.
- Granite In Every Soul explores how we might employ agent files to conduct impression management.
- The Evolution of Faith discusses our species’ willingness to privilege social learning over individual learning.
Other mindreading-impacting phenomena we have not yet discussed include:
- Agency Detection. When the natural world violates our expectations (a leaf moves against gravity), often these events are caused by an (presently unseen) agent. Mismatches between agent and agency detection are thought to generate the intuitions that underlie our species’ folk animism.
- Emotion Contagion.
- Friendship behaviors.
- Shared Attention mechanisms. Before we can reason about the beliefs of another agent, we must learn to
- Cultural Psychological mechanisms. We have yet to discuss prestige biases, and our compulsive need to share information.
- Six Pillars of Selfhood. Kahneman distinguishes the Remembering vs Experiencing self. There’s
The following graphic attempts to bring together these subcomponents into a 10,000 foot view of the system. For more on this train of thought, I recommend Schaafsma et al (2015).
Clearly, representation mindreading involves more than a single faculty, but rather deploys a broad coalition of social faculties. It is likely that distinct “mindreading tasks” employed in experiments typically recruit coalitions with subtly different profiles.
Relationship to ICNs
The cognitive neuroscience community has converged on a set of neural mechanisms underlying goal and representation mindreading. These five regions are:
- Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC)
- Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC)
- Temporo-Parietal Junction (TPJ)
- Superior Temporal Sulcus (STS).
- Temporal Pole (TP).
We have begun localizing specific functions to these five regions-of-interest. The TPJ seems to be the key site for representation mindreading, whereas goal mindreading is produced by the other sites; with the temporal pole appearing to underlie desire attribution specifically.
Scientific consensus is hard to achieve without a deluge of data; this network is here to stay. But there are two reasons to hesitate before drawing further conclusions. First, “mindreading” is probably not a natural kind; neural mechanisms probably map to more granular functions that join together to produce both macrosystems.
Second, these five regions must be structurally understood in terms of intrinsic connectivity networks (ICNs), and this work has not yet been undertaken. In my writeup of ICNs, we described evidence for five “processing networks”:
- Default mode network (and its three subcomponents)
- Salience Network and the closely related Ventral Attention Network (VAN)
- Dorsal Attention Network (DAN)
- Fronto-Parietal Control Network (FPCN) implicated in volitional control and willpower
- Cingulo-Opercular Control Network (COCN), implicated in working memory rehearsal and fluid intelligence.
The five regions of interest above are a subset of what social cognition theorists describe as the sociality network. In turn, the sociality network seems to comprise a subset of the default mode network. An increasing number of theorists are gesturing towards three subnetworks within the DM network, with mindreading modules mostly but not entirely residing within one of those subnetworks. Further, we have evidence that the default mode network is the basis of interoception and allostasis (that is, the brain’s unconscious representation of the body aka the hot loop).
These hints are suggestive. But precious little of our knowledge is detailed enough to be formalized and modeled. Someday I will be able to say more about the relationship between sociality, mindreading, interoception, and the default mode network. But that is not yet possible in 2020… at least, as far as I know.
Until next time.
- Baren-Cohen et al (1985) Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?
- Call & Tomasello (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later
- Gergely et al (1994). Taking the intentional stance at 12 months of age
- Heider & Simmel (1944) An experimental study of apparent behavior
- Schaafsma et al (2015). Deconstructing and reconstructing theory of mind