In this post we are going to dive a little bit deeper in how we understand other minds. Us humans have this very special ability to sort of read other people’s minds. If someone is eating something you can guess that he was probably feeling hungry. If you see someone crying you can infer that that person is feeling sad, and probably something bad happened. We can often correctly infer other people’s intentions, desires, goals and stuff like that. How this is actually done will be discussed now.
The first explanation of how we read other people’s minds has a pretty goofy name. I don’t know why they called it this, but the term stuck and now it is a common thing in the philosophy of mind. I’m of course talking about theory-theory. Theory-theory states that when we read other people’s minds, we do so by developing a theory of how the other mind is functioning. For example, if your friend is staring at her phone and suddenly starts laughing out loud, you probably know that she saw a funny meme or something. But this is actually a theory that you make up based on the perception of relevant information.
So, that is why theory theory is called like this. It is a theory in the philosophy of mind, that states that people just make up theories about other people’s minds. It has a theoretical nature. We start doing this when we are very young and continue to theorize about other people’s minds and behavior throughout our life. If some theory doesn’t work or new information comes along, then we might change it and keep going on.
There is also a rival theory which is called simulation theory. In this case you put yourself in the situation of the other and you imagine what you would do or feel if the same thing happened to you. You pretend to be in the situation, so in this way you kind of simulate it.
So simulation theory is more of a process which uses little information, in contrast to theory theory which uses lots of information and uses that to create theories.
One concept that is closely tied to simulation is empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. It is also about taking the perspective of someone else. So, if your best friend is feeling sad about a break up, you might feel similar emotions along with them. Similarly if your friend tells you a joke that he finds hilarious you might laugh just as hard even though the joke might not have been so funny. Laughter is contagious you know. 😀
Recently, there has been some interesting biological evidence found that supports simulation theory. This was the discovery of mirror neurons. So most of you probably know what a neuron is, it’s a cell that can send an electrical signal, and these can be found in your brain and the rest of the nervous system. What we feel, think, desire and so on is a result of a bunch of neurons firing. Neurons firing means that they become activated and send an electrical signal. A lot of human behavior is actually directly linked to neurons firing. Neuroscience today is trying to explain a lot of human behavior by looking at how neurons work.
Okay, so that’s a neuron, and then a mirror neuron is a special kind that fires when you perform a certain action, but also if you observe the same action in someone else. So for example, if I grab a cup of tea to take a sip, a certain collection of neurons will fire. And if I see you do the exact same action, grab a cup of tea and start drinking, the exact same neurons will fire again. It kinda looks like like our brain doesn’t really distinguish between ourselves performing an action, and someone else doing it. This is an indication that simulation theory might be on the right track. That when we see people do things in the world, we somehow automatically incorporate it in our own perspective. We immediately already process what it would be like for us. But I have to say, we don’t know exactly yet how this mirror activity becomes integrated in our experience. It might not have much to do with simulation at all. Hopefully neuroscience will provide more clarity on that in the future.
Which one are you, are you a theory theorist or a simulation theorist? Or perhaps you think a combination of both theories is the way to go. Please let us know in the comments.