Thursday, October 20, 2011

Constance Cummings - Summary: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM)

This is the first in a new series of articles from Somatosphere looking at Theorizing Theory of Mind. Theory of mind is essentially seen as the ability to recognize that other minds (people, beings) have different experiences of the world than we do. In children, this skill arrives around the age of three, give or take.

Theory of mind is thought to be the essential skill upon which empathy is based.

What follows is the beginning of the article, which is quite long. It stems from a new effort to determine how theory of mind operates in different cultures (thus, anthropological).

Summary: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM)

This article is part of the series: 
This is the first in a series of posts covering cross-disciplinary research on theory of mind. The series is being posted simultaneously at Somatosphere and at theFoundation for Psychocultural Research (FPR) blog.
Last weekend a small, international gathering of twenty-seven anthropologists and psychologists took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, organized by Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann  and Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellows Julia Cassaniti, and Jocelyn MarrowThe meeting was made possible by a generous gift from the Robert Lemelson Foundation.
Nestled under the dappled shade of oak trees, the center provided a beautiful setting for a relaxed yet animated discussion on the concept of theory of mind, including the possibility of cross-cultural, comparative research program. (See end of post for full list of participants.
According to the hypothesis on which the meeting was based “there are cultural variations in the way minds are imagined, and . . . these variations have consequences for mental experience (broadly defined) and the nature of social interaction.” Invited speakers briefly summarized their work (papers were circulated in advance) but most of each session and many lively coffee-break conversations were devoted to exploring related questions and research opportunities.
The workshop opened on Thursday evening with a talk by anthropologistRita Astuti (London School of Economics) covering the history of ToM and the challenges of cross-cultural, interdisciplinary work. Below is a summary of the Friday morning session on “interiority and boundedness,” featuring talks by anthropologists Joel Robbins (UC San Diego), Julia, and Tanya.
Theory of Mind
Theory of mind (ToM) was coined by primatologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff to refer to the ability of an individual to “impute mental states to himself and to others” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978; Call & Tomasello, 2008). The concept subsequently carried over to developmental psychology and neuroscience. Psychologists were interested in the emergence in young children of a capacity to attribute false beliefs to other persons (Wimmer & Perner, 1983; also referred to as the Sally-Anne test or S-AT). Neuroscientists began to explore some possible neural mechanisms of ToM (which critically “enables us to predict what others are going to do” [U. Frith & C. Frith, 2010] ), like imitation (eventually bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons in macaques, which fired when observing an object-directed gesture, with the mirror neuron “system” thus appearing to mediate an understanding of others’ actions), as well as “precursor” mechanisms, like face processing, gaze monitoring, or detection of animacy and their dysfunctions (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006). A particularly influential 1985 paper for both research programs by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie, and Uta Frith argued that children with autism lacked a theory of mind based on their difficulties with the false belief test (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). (Links to research cited available at end of post.)
Currently, the mainstream definition in the psychiatric neuroscience literature  characterizes ToM as the cognitive (or “high level”) capacity to “mind read,” that is, “to attribute mental states like thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and feelings to oneself and others,” (Montag et al., 2011). But, as several attendees noted, some assumptions implicit in this sort of definition – e.g., the extent to which ToM is based on explicit inferences of internally held propositions – presume an understanding of mind which is western.  Anthropologists have long been aware that the western model of mind is not shared by all people. Those at the meeting had assembled to explore what they knew about the consequences of different models of mind for mental experience, developmental process, psychiatric illness, and the adults experience of inferring intentions.
Read the whole article.

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