Thursday, 13 November 2014

Symposium on Theory of Mind and the Social Mind

Logo of The Human Mind Project
I'm Mattia Gallotti, Project Coordinator of The Human Mind Project. In this post, I report on a recent symposium entitled "Theory of Mind and the Social Mind". This was the third public event of The Human Mind Project and it took place on September 16th in the broader context of the 2014 annual meeting of the European Society of Philosophy and Psychology (ESPP) held in Noto, Sicily.

Led by Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, The Human Mind Project highlights the contribution of the arts and humanities to the study of human nature, and the importance of a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the mind, integrating science and the humanities. In this spirit, the event - a symposium on “Theory of Mind and the Social Mind” - had presentations in social anthropology and neuroscience, by Rita Astuti (LSE) and Mina Cikara (Harvard), about how recent advances in the research on shared cognition and group behaviour can shed new light on corners of the debate on theory of mind that still await clarification.

The classic distinction between first-person and third-person knowledge of other minds has recently been enriched with novel insights from several strands of research on the roots of the ‘social mind’, broadly understood, ranging from analyses of joint action and group attitudes to studies of social identity and interpersonal understanding across cultures. This line of argumentation is receiving increasing attention and it offers new entries into traditional disputes about the nature and functioning of theory-of-mind abilities.

Conference venue, Noto
Yet there is work to be done in scrutinizing relevant insights from bodies of literature that have hardly engaged in this debate thus far - insights about explicit versus implicit levels of mentalizing, which draw on considerations about the capacity to share mental representations and to cognize in ‘modes’ other than the first- and the third-person; as well as insights about the neural instantiation of specific mind-reading abilities, informed by current research on the neuroscience of inter- versus intra-group behaviour.

During the symposium, we addressed these questions by touching upon theoretical and empirical resources, stretching from conceptual analyses to anthropological-psychological studies to experiments in social neuroscience. In more detail, Rita Astuti discussed the difference between explicit folk-theories of the mind, documented by anthropologists, and the implicit and automatic computation of other agents’ mental states that is documented by the cognitive sciences. Mina Cikara, instead, focused on the conditions under which people recognize emotional experiences in others, showing that not only do they empathize less with out-group relative to in-group members, but also feel pleasure in response to their pain (and pain in response to their pleasure).

The general question worth asking is how ‘theory-of-mind’ concepts in the behavioural sciences relate to the use of the expression across the brain sciences. Although the tendency to collaborate and share data and ideas is stronger than ever, interdisciplinary research is arguably less common and easy to pursue across the border between the social and human sciences, and the cognitive sciences.

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