Saturday, June 21, 2014

"Mind-reading" unravelled?

The notion of "mind-reading" has been bugging me since, I guess, some time in the last decade of the previous century. This is the idea that we humans have a "theory of mind" (TOM) module which we use to "read other people's minds. It's that theory of mind stuff that bugs me, and it really bugged me when literary scholars got ahold of it and started going on about literature as a field for this mind-reading activity. Bollocks!

Yes, we've got minds. And, yes, we're intensely interested in other people and their minds. But talking about his as some kind of THEORY of mind is an invitation for trouble. But this article looks like it might clear things up a bit:

Cecilia M. Heyes, Chris D. Frith

Science 20 June 2014:
Vol. 344 no. 6190
DOI: 10.1126/science.1243091

It is not just a manner of speaking: “Mind reading,” or working out what others are thinking and feeling, is markedly similar to print reading. Both of these distinctly human skills recover meaning from signs, depend on dedicated cortical areas, are subject to genetically heritable disorders, show cultural variation around a universal core, and regulate how people behave. But when it comes to development, the evidence is conflicting. Some studies show that, like learning to read print, learning to read minds is a long, hard process that depends on tuition. Others indicate that even very young, nonliterate infants are already capable of mind reading. Here, we propose a resolution to this conflict. We suggest that infants are equipped with neurocognitive mechanisms that yield accurate expectations about behavior (“automatic” or “implicit” mind reading), whereas “explicit” mind reading, like literacy, is a culturally inherited skill; it is passed from one generation to the next by verbal instruction.
The last sentence of the abstract contains a key distinction. Now I'm not at all sure that this learned cultural skill amounts to a theory, certainly not in the sense of a philosopher's theory of mind; but the authors are making a crucial distinction between innate neurocognitive mechanisms for picking up cues from others and something that is culturally built upon them, as chess tactics and strategy are built upon the fundamental rule-given moves of the game. 

I have no trouble believing in the existence of those innate mechanisms, which have been built through millions of years of evolution. But there's no need to call them, collectively, a theory of mind or to think that they allow infects to "see into" the minds of others. Not at all. They keep things synched up because that's how the human neuro-cognitive apparatus is.

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