Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rita Astuti - Some after dinner thoughts on Theory of Mind

This very cool essay is actually the transcript of an after-dinner talk given by at Stanford University in September 2011 at a conference organized by Tanya Luhrmann entitled "Towards an anthropological Theory of Mind." The transcript was published in January, 2012 (#3), issue of Anthropology of this Century.

Theory of Mind (ToM) is one of the cool topics in philosophy, and even neuroscience, but where it has been most relevant for me is in developmental research. It seems that somewhere around 30-48 months, children begin to understand that what they are thinking/feeling/wanting may not be what another person (mom/dad) is thinking/feeling/wanting.

Developmentally, ToM is important because it is a necessary (but not sufficient) skill for the emergence of empathy (although Alison Gopnik and others have posited a primitive form of empathy even in infants). On the other hand, adults do not always act in accordance with ToM's attributional framework.

Some after dinner thoughts on Theory of Mind

[Editor's note: This is, literally, the transcript of an after dinner talk given by Rita Astuti on the occasion of a conference held at Stanford University in September 2011. The conference, organised by Tanya Luhrmann, was entitled "Towards an anthropological Theory of Mind".  For readers unfamiliar with the relevant debates in psychology and philosophy, it will help to know - at least roughly - what “Theory of Mind” refers to. To put it simply: “Theory of Mind” is the human ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to other people (this is one reason it has been called a theory: because it is about phenomena that are not directly observable). We use Theory of Mind to attribute knowledge and ignorance, emotions and thoughts, intentions and desire to others, and to predict and explain their behaviour (this is the second reason it has been called a theory: because it is used to make predictions). The awareness that other people may have false beliefs about the world has been regarded as the ultimate proof that one has Theory of Mind. Whether this awareness is something we are born with or something that emerges in the course of cognitive development is a hotly debated issue. In the literature, Theory of Mind is often abbreviated as ToM.]

The only other time I’ve been at a conference with a scheduled after dinner talk was a few years ago at Trinity College, Cambridge. The conference was on belief, and it had been funded by the Perrott-Warrick Fund, a Fund set up in the 1930s to scientifically prove the existence of the paranormal and the afterlife.

Although this unusual source of funding did not appear to affect the proceedings during the day, by the time darkness fell magic was allowed to take over. At dinner, we were treated to a magic show, delivered by a professional magician who was also a professionally trained psychologist. He first enchanted us with his tricks, and then revealed the psychological principles underlying them – basically, he made us aware of how he had manipulated our minds to make the magic work.


For example, he performed a simple – and yet so seductive – disappearing trick, and we all fell for it. Then he explained that, apart from the undeniable dexterity of his fingers, the magic worked because of our – the audience’s – mind reading abilities.

He counted on the fact that if he intently looked OVER HERE, at his left hand, the audience would FOLLOW HIS GAZE and concentrate on what he was looking at. And while we were focusing on his left hand, the real trick was happening OVER THERE, in his right hand – but nobody noticed.

Of course, the reason I’m telling you this story – which I chose to do before realizing that Graham Jones was going to be here[1] – is that gaze following is one of the basic components of our mind reading abilities: a building block of Theory of Mind, the topic of this conference.

You follow my gaze because you want to know what I’m seeing (you know that looking is seeing) and what state of knowledge or ignorance I’m in (you know that seeing is knowing).

By following each other’s gaze, we can coordinate our focus of attention (we can both see and know the same thing) and monitor whether we are paying attention to each other – for example, monitoring where you are looking at is a pretty good way of finding out whether you are following what I’m saying or whether you are bored or distracted; although of course, like the magician, you can easily deceive me by pretending to focus your attention on me while thinking about something else…

In saying all of this, I might be taking a big gamble – I’m assuming that you have a mind! This assumption, and what follows from it – that you have knowledge, desires, intentions, emotions, beliefs and that it is your knowledge, desires, intentions, emotions and beliefs that explain your actions or lack thereof – is what Theory of Mind is all about.

Read the whole article/talk.
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