Mental Understanding Abilities

The aim of my research is to describe the cognitive mechanism/mechanisms that underlie what I call ‘Mental Understanding Abilities’.  In this post I’ll clarify what I mean by this.

The average human has a quite sophisticated understanding of the mind. This understanding confers a range of useful abilities that we use every day in social interactions with strangers, colleagues, partners and family members. Consider the following scene:

 Hans frowns hard and rubs his belly. A smile crosses his lips; he approaches the fridge and opens it, poking his head inside. The fridge is empty. Hans slams the fridge door and the frown returns to his face.

We could explain this behaviour by saying that Hans desired food and that he believed there was food in the fridge. When he looked inside the fridge he gained the knowledge that there was no food in there. The former frown was due to hunger, the latter due to disappointment and the slamming of the door was due to anger. We are not limited to explanation however; suppose we observed a frowning Hans rubbing his belly and that we knew that Hans believed that there was a large bratwurst in the fridge. Using this information we would be able to predict that Hans would search in the fridge for the bratwurst. If we knew further that earlier in the day – unbeknownst to Hans – Sylvie had eaten the bratwurst, we would have also been able to predict Hans’ bitter disappointment and anger.

Mental explanation or prediction isn’t always so clear cut, as when Franz sits in his armchair, agonising over the reason why Bridgette hasn’t called after their date last night. “Did I talk too much?” He wonders “Does she not find me attractive? Did I bore her with my constant talk about concrete brutalist architecture?” Franz is unaware that the real reason Bridgette hasn’t called is that she left her phone in the taxi. She actually had a lovely time and would love to do it again sometime.

Note that in the explanation and prediction of Hans’ behaviour we attribute various mental states to him: desire, hunger, disappointment, belief and anger. These states are not themselves directly observable – we can’t see them – but we are able to infer them from Hans’ behaviour. While Hans is very easy to read, Bridgette is less so. Franz has to infer Bridgette’s mental states on the very slender evidence of her not calling him. The mental states that we attribute to people seem to be caused by the sensory information they receive from the environment and/or by other mental states that they previously possessed. These attributed mental states can go on to cause other mental states to occur, or to cause the behaviour that we observe.

This causal understanding of the mind doesn’t just allow us to passively explain and predict behaviour; we can actively get involved in influencing others’ mental states. We can manipulate others’ mental states by controlling their perceptual input, if Hans did not want Sylvie to know about the bratwurst in the fridge maybe he should have hidden it in one of the draws. In hindsight, maybe he should have. We can mislead people into believing things that aren’t true, to desire things that aren’t in their interests. But it’s not all so Machiavellian; we can manipulate others mental states by anticipating their desires and fulfilling them or by making them believe something that makes them feel better.

These are just some examples of our mental understanding abilities, I’m sure you can now think of more. We use these abilities and the understanding on which they are based so often, and so effortlessly, that we take them for granted. But the full range of abilities doesn’t seem to be shared by some people with autism, younger children or our closest primate cousins. So what is it that underlies these abilities? My approach to answering this question is to explore the relevant literature from various scientific disciplines, primarily psychology and neuroscience, to see which theoretical model of cognitive architecture best fits the data. Currently I lean towards a cluster of dissociable cognitive mechanisms rather than a single mechanism, but there is much work to do and I try to keep an open mind.

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