Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Theory of mind, theory of brain - neuroscience and metaphysics

The Science Times ponders the fact that baboons can think but lack theory of mind in an interesting article this morning. Theory of mind refers to the ability most human beings have of being able to intuit what is going on in another person's mind - not by ESP, but by relating the verbal and non-verbal signs of another person to one's own behavior and then projecting it into that other person's present context, not one's own. For example a child might see another child cry because she stole the other's candy. Even though the thief herself is happy to have the candy, she could tell you that the child who lost the candy feels sad. Theory of mind is a hot topic in the area of developmental disorders research, as most people with conditions like autism lack it. The article tells this story:

When they cross from one island to another, ever fearful of crocodiles, the adults will often go first, leaving the juveniles fretting at the water’s edge. However much the young baboons call, their mothers never come back to help, as if unable to divine their children’s predicament.

But people have a very strong ability to recognize the mental states of others, and this could have prompted a desire to communicate that drove the evolution of language. “If I know you don’t know something, I am highly motivated to communicate it,” Dr. Seyfarth said.

It's interesting to me that this behavior suggests to the scientist a lack of theory of mind as opposed to, say, a way the baboons are either hardwired by nature or a way their culture has evolved to teach their little ones to "sink or swim." Do they fail to protect their children from danger in all cases or just this one? Theory of mind is continually shaped by culture and dictated to by individual circumstance. Does a mother who lets a playground struggle play out for a while between her child and another lack understanding that her child is experiencing pain, or does something suggest to her that there is a value in this pain if the child is to learn to survive?

Today's article also explores baboons ability to make decisions in an apparently sophisticated way based upon an understanding of their community's hierarchy. When it comes to communication, it appears they may be able to analyze a sequence of sounds for what their combination symbolizes about the order of that hierarchy - an ability not unlike human understanding of sentences.

What I particularly enjoyed about this article is that, no matter how sophisticated an understanding we develop of the brain over time, understanding behavior will always be about more than understanding the brain. Scientists must, in fact intuit, what a given process 'means' by projecting their human experience onto the science. If I discover a specific function for the anterior cingulate gyrus in the human response to discovering one has made a mistake, a narrative about what it feels like to be wrong, how serious being wrong about something is in a certain context, or whether it is important that one was wrong must accompany the facts I have shown about behaviors that consistently activate this brain area. What I love about cognitive neuroscience is how it must necessarily combine definable knowledge of an anatomical region, or an exchange of ions, or the perception of sound with a philosophical narrative about who we are and what are world is. Neuroscience is inextricably interwoven with metaphysics. We must have a theory of mind to accompany our theory of brain.

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