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Why reading minds is not like reading words

Written by Brent Strickland and Pierre Jacob

GirlWithABookIn a recent review paper in Science (2014. 344-6190) entitled “The cultural evolution of mind reading,” Cecilia Heyes and Chris Frith argue that human children learn to read minds much like they learn to read words, via explicit verbal instruction from knowledgeable adults. On their view, both abilities are inherited culturally as opposed to genetically. Their argument for this thought-provoking analogy rests on three basic claims:

(1)  Mindreading exhibits as much cultural diversity as reading words.

(2)  The case of word reading shows that dedicated neural structure is not ipso facto evidence for genetic inheritance.

(3)  The putative evidence for mindreading in preverbal infants shows the presence of something they call implicit mindreading, which is not genuine mindreading.

Cross-cultural variation

Isn’t there a clear asymmetry between reading words and mindreading? While writing systems were invented some 5,000 years ago, there is no evidence in any culture of a population of healthy adults lacking the basic mindreading ability to ascribe beliefs, intentions and desires to others.

Read more: Why reading minds is not like reading words

Another look at the two-systems model of mindreading

Apperly and Butterfill (2009) and Butterfill and Apperly (2013) have proposed a two-systems model of mindreading. According to this model, humans make use of two distinct psychological systems in mindreading tasks. The model rests on three related claims. First of all, the early-developing system, which is taken to be efficient, fast and inflexible, is supposed to explain the positive findings based on spontaneous-response tasks showing that infants can track the contents of others’ false beliefs. The later-developing system, which is taken to be slower, inefficient and flexible, is supposed to be necessary for success at elicited-response false-belief tasks, which most children pass only when they are at least 4,5 years of age. Secondly, the two separate systems are supposed to co-exist in human adults. Finally, there are signature limits of the early-developing system: in particular, only the later-developing system is taken to enable someone to represent the content of another’s false belief about object identity. 

Low and Watts, in a 2013 paper, took seriously the prediction of the two-systems model that representing the content of an agent’s false belief about object identity falls beyond the scope of the early-developing mindreading system and can only be executed by the later-developing system. They designed a task whose purpose was to probe participants’ understanding of the content of a male agent’s false belief about the identity of a two-colored puppet, using two different measures. I previously argued that the findings reported by Low and Watts (2013) fail to support the two-systems model of mindreading because it does not merely test participants’ ability to track the content of an agent’s false belief about an object’s identity but also their ability to revise or update their own belief about the puppet’s colors. Gergo Csibra has further suggested a follow-up experiment.So far as I know, Csibra’s suggestion has yet to be tested. On the other hand, Low, Drummond, Walmsley and Wang (2014) have designed a new quite interesting visual perspective-taking task, whose complexity matches that of Low and Watts’s (2013) earlier Identity task. Here I want to discuss this work and its implications.

Read more: Another look at the two-systems model of mindreading

Do we use different tools to mindread a defendant and a goalkeeper?

Previously on cognitionandculture — Last year, Pierre Jacob posted a critical review of the so-called two-systems model of mindreading, according to which humans use two distinct mental tools to understand the thoughts of others: one is fast and automatic, the other is slower, more reflective, and based on less immediate cues. This is a follow-up on his earlier post.

In a pair of experiments reported in a paper to appear shortly in Psychological Science, Jason Low and Joseph Watts used two distinct paradigms to investigate the human ability of 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and adults to ascribe false beliefs to an agent. They take their findings to support the two-systems model of mindreading. On this model, while an efficient and inflexible system (system 1) enables a soccer player to score a goal by deceiving the goalkeeper in a split-second, a flexible but inefficient system (system 2) underlies a judge’s reflection over a defendant’s motivations and epistemic states over several days.
fig LowWatts

Low and Watts' identity task: Only the participant, not the agent, knows that the puppet that first moves into the right box and then into the left box is blue on one side and red on the other side. Which of the two boxes will the agent, who prefers blue over red things, look into?

Read more: Do we use different tools to mindread a defendant and a goalkeeper?

Belief ascription in infants and children: the puzzle

In several recent papers on mindreading and belief-ascription, Ian Apperly and his colleagues have reported evidence suggesting that the process whereby human adults ascribe false beliefs to others is not automatic. They have further argued that efficiency and flexibility make competing and inconsistent demands on the ability of human adults to reason about others’ beliefs. To solve this tension, they have argued for the view that there are two (not one) systems of belief-ascription: an efficient but inflexible system, shared by human infants and adults, underlies the ascription of belief-like states and a flexible but inefficient system (only present in adults) underlies the ascription of genuine beliefs. If Apperly and his colleagues are right, then this two-systems model might help solve a fundamental puzzle in the developmental psychological study of belief-ascription in human children. Are they? 

Read more: Belief ascription in infants and children: the puzzle

The scope of natural pedagogy theory (II): uniquely human?

This is the second post in a series of two installments by Pierre Jacob, dwelling on Gergely and Csibra's work on human communication. In Pierre's first post, we saw that these experiments show that, as suggested by relevance theory, human can detect communicative intentions quite early. Now Pierre turns to a second issue.

Natural pedagogy has also recently cast an interesting light onto the second question raised by Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) relevance approach to ostensive-inferential communication: to what extent is it distinctive of human cognition? Unlike great apes, domesticated dogs have co-evolved with humans for several thousand years. As a result and unlike great apes, they are widely believed to exhibit some understanding of human referential intentions expressed in communicative gestures, such as pointing (Hare and Tomasello, 2005). Range, Viranyi and Huber (2007) have adapted Gergely et al.’s (2002) paradigm to test the propensity of domestic dogs to engage in the selective imitation of a model’s behavior.

Read more: The scope of natural pedagogy theory (II): uniquely human?

The scope of natural pedagogy theory (I): babies

This is the first post in a series of two installments by Pierre Jacob, dwelling on Gergely and Csibra's work on human communication.

According to Csibra and Gergely’s (2009) so-called “natural pedagogical” approach to the psychological bases of human culture, human infants are innately predisposed to automatically interpret what Sperber and Wilson (1986) call an agent’s “ostensive” behavioral stimuli as cues that the agent intends to make manifest to the child some relevant novel information. Thus, the natural pedagogical approach takes for granted Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) relevance-based concept of “ostensive-inferential communicative behavior”, which is defined as a (behavioral) stimulus produced by an agent whereby she makes it manifest to her audience that she intends, by means of this stimulus, to make manifest (or more manifest) to her audience a set of assumptions. Sperber and Wilson (1986) draw a basic distinction between an agent’s informative intention (to make some assumptions manifest to her audience) and an agent’s communicative intention to make her informative intention manifest. So on relevance-theoretic grounds, a communicative intention is itself a second-order informative intention: it is the intention to make manifest one’s first-order intention. Arguably, for someone to entertain a communicative intention is to intend another to represent one’s own informative intention. If so, then entertaining a communicative intention requires the ability to form a third-order meta-representation. In which case, representing another’s communicative intention requires the ability to form a fourth-order meta-representation.

Two outstanding open empirical issues generated by Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) relevance framework are: (i) to what extent is it psychologically plausible to credit young human infants with the ability to interpret another’s ostensive-inferential communicative behavior and ascribe to an agent, in accordance with relevance theory, a communicative intention? (ii) To what extent is ostensive-inferential communicative behavior specific to human cognition? Arguably, Csibra and Gergely’s natural pedagogy theory offers interesting new empirical insights into these two questions.  In this post, I tackle the first question (that of communicative competence in infants). The second post will deal with the issue of human specificity.

Read more: The scope of natural pedagogy theory (I): babies

Pierre Jacob reviews 'Mothers and Others', by Sarah B. Hrdy

Review of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others, the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (422 p.)



Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California-Davis, has just published a wonderful essay in evolutionary psychology, entitled Mothers and Others, the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Her basic question is: what accounts for the unique human capacity to read other minds? Her basic answer is that humans are cooperative breeders, which means both that human infants have evolved a unique ability to engage grown ups into caring for them and also that human adults are wired in for extensive shared care and the provisioning of offspring by so-called “alloparents” (i.e. non-biological parents). The interplay between infants’ commitment to enlist caretakers and adults’ willingness to serve as caretakers is the evolutionary basis of the human ability for mindreading. The book is an impressive and sustained argument for why, unlike other apes, humans are cooperative breeders, based on evidence from genetics, endocrinology, the paleontology of fossil record, primatology, comparative and developmental psychology, anthropological research among extant hunter-gatherer societies, history and even sociology. In the process, she debunks a number of assumptions prevalent in either anthropology (e.g. the prevalence of patrilocal residence patterns and the organizing role of patrilineal inheritance in human gathering-and-hunting societies) or in evolutionary theorizing (e.g. the Hunting pact or Sex contract).

While human infants uniquely compete among one another for being cared for, human adults are uniquely wired for sharing both food and the care of offspring. Not only is food sharing virtually inexistent among Great Apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas), but also the exclusive reliance on maternal care among other apes is non-negotiable: separation from its mother almost inevitably leads to the infant’s death. Trust in others’ benevolence is a unique feature of human cognition: a human mother would never engage in cooperative breeding and shared care of her offspring unless she trusted members of her group. As Hrdy emphasizes, young mothers’ inexperience and incompetence are important causes of infants’ deaths among primates. Hence, there is competition among potential young caretakers for holding newborns. Cooperative breeding helps explain the following puzzle: on the one hand, human infants are more helpless, take longer to mature, are larger and more costly to feed, than infants of other apes. On the other hand, human hunter-gatherer mothers reproduce almost twice as fast (every 3 to 4 years on average) as other apes (every 6 to 8 years on average) (p. 102). Shared care and provisioning of offspring critically helps support the high rate of human reproduction compared to that of other apes. In hunter-gatherer societies, shared care enables the mother both to gather food for herself and her progeny and to benefit from food gathered by members of her group.

In chapter 3, Hrdy’s shared care hypothesis leads her to a friendly critical assessment of the emphasis by classical attachment theorists on the mother’s continuous and exclusive care of, and contact with, her offspring.

Read more: Pierre Jacob reviews 'Mothers and Others', by Sarah B. Hrdy

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