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Other MindsReview - Other Minds
How Humans Bridge the Divide between Self and Others
by Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges (Editors)
Guilford, 2005
Review by Giacomo Romano, Ph.D.
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)

Since Descartes, the problem of other minds has been a classic discussion in the tradition of Western philosophy. It consists of different questions related to whether and how to justify what is going on in the mind of other people. Until the second half of the 19th century, that is, until scientific psychology became a discipline fairly autonomous from philosophy, philosophers used to answer these questions, as well as all of the other questions relative to the mind, without taking much into consideration the findings of empirical sciences.

Nowadays things are changed and the book edited by Malle and Hodges confirms the change. Other Minds takes a survey of many problems relative to the capacity, that is typically human, of understanding the individuals of our (and similar) species as endowed with a mind. The book mainly proceeds with an empirical approach. Yet problems are articulated in the discussion of a number of questions: What does mindreading exactly mean? Does mindreading correspond to a specific cognitive device or to a general psychological capacity? Can we identify a neural correlate of mindreading? Does the faculty of interpreting other minds bear on related mental phenomena, such as consciousness and self-awareness? The solutions that the volume offers for these questions are based on the impressive inventory of empirical data collected by experimental psychologists.

The subject matters taken into consideration by the essays of the book seem to disappear from the agenda of theoretical psychology in the second postwar period. Maybe one of the reasons of the indifference about these issues is the collateral spread and success of the new paradigm for cognitive psychology: that is, methodological solipsism that started to define the items of the agenda focusing on cognitive processes which are limited to the individual dimension. Only at the end of the 1970's have psychologists started again to analyze the question of other minds from a cognitive point of view. At that time, the debate about the theoretical nature of naÔve psychology, that is, the psychology of common sense that explains behavior in terms of beliefs, desires, and similar intentional attitudes, came to the attention of cognitivists. The theoretical framework of cognitive sciences was popular and theorists used it in order to explain the capacity of a person to ascribe, understand, and predict mental states and actions of other people. They considered this capacity as the result of the application of rules and/or principles that constitute the body of knowledge of which any adult and normal human being is or should be naturally endowed. In other words, according to this view, that is known as '"theory" theory' of mind, an individual is able to interpret the mind of other people thanks to his theory of mind. The theory of mind that a person makes up on the intentional attitudes of other people can be conceived in two ways. It can be considered a real theory, that is or can be explicitly articulated (e.g. as a scientific theory). Alternatively, it can be identified with a core of knowledge that is implicit, modular, and innate (such as Chomsky's grammar). After a decade, some scholars of the mind suggested a different hypothesis. Without appealing to a theory, implicit or explicit, they proposed that the key cognitive process employed by someone in order to interpret the mind of others is a form of simulative procedure. This is based on the capacity of a person to identify himself, both emotionally and cognitively, with other people in order to re-enact the psychological etiology of their behavior (such a more recent approach is known as 'theory of mental simulation').

The comparison between "theory" theory of mind and theory of mental simulation, relative to the capacity of mindreading, has led the discussion. The debate has mainly focused on theoretical disputes that have almost adopted only the metapsychological competence of toddlers and subjects with autism as test-bed. Other Minds, inspired by this debate, extends the discussion of the problem† relating mindreading to other perspectives, especially within social psychology, a field that has not yet been covered. Thus, Other Minds fills some important gaps in the state-of-the-art of †††mindreading studies.

The book edited by Malle and Hodges gathers 21 essays that are the refined versions of the talks given by a heterogeneous team of scholars at the conference on other minds, held in September 2003 at the University of Oregon. Most of the authors are psychologists (mainly developmental psychologists and especially social psychologists), but they were in company of neuroscientists, linguists, and a few philosophers. The editors have provided the volume with a precise and concise introduction, and it is subdivided into five thematic sections. The first four sections each contain four essays; the last one, instead, contains five. Some of the texts seem out of place (especially essay 4 in the first section and essay 21 in the last section), giving the reader the impression that the section's organizations has followed more editorial demands rather than thematic resemblances. However, if some of the essays do not fit the sections in which they are included, they all fit the general subject matter of other minds.

As I cannot thoroughly comment on each essay for reasons of space, I will take a short survey of them, organizing my commentaries in five thematic groups that correspond to the five sections in which the volume is subdivided. I will also point out the texts that are more interesting, insofar they are particularly clear and/or original.

  1. The first section, titled "Questions about the Phenomenon", is focused on the description of the processes that seems to be involved with mindreading, and on the difficult individuation of these processes. Several investigations about cognitive development have proven that mindreading is a capacity that gradually develops. It is worth wondering about the possibility to correlate this capacity to other factors that occur in order to determine cognitive development, such as the executive function (cf. essay 1): Otherwise, mindreading could be the result of a number of cognitive elements that develop simultaneously, such as the faculty of perceiving intentional behavior or talking about intentional attitudes (cf. essay 2). However, the capacity of interpreting other minds is not easily characterized by its component elements such as perspective taking. For example the meaning of "perspective taking" is not clear because, as B. Malle claims, "... since most empirical interest in perspective taking has tended to be tactical [...] surprisingly little attention has been devoted to understanding perspective taking in its own right" (cf. p. 53, essay 3). Another controversial aspect is the very nature of mindreading, that many cognitivists conceive as conceptual. Essay 4, that Daniel Hutto carefully defends, argues against this idea and its implicit conception of the propositional feature of concepts, as well as against the theoretical nature of mindreading that relies on this idea. Prof. Hutto holds that in order to conceptually understand other minds, concepts such as "beliefs" and "desires" have to be employed. These concepts acquire their meaning on a holistic base; therefore, they cannot have propositional and discrete nature, like cognitivists sustain. In fact, such an hypothesis is incompatible with the possibility that children can learn concepts like "beliefs" and "desires" through a developmental approach, as indeed they do. Consequently, the capacity of mindreading also cannot have theoretical nature.
  2. Determining the psychological mechanisms that make us acquire the ability of mindreading is a difficult task. However, there is no doubt that such a capacity has cognitive, behavioral, and neurophysiological correlations. The second section of the book, "Reading Behavior, Reading Minds", addresses these connections. It scrutinizes the observable facts that correspond to mindreading from various points of view. The most interesting perspective, maybe because we know very little about it, is the one that aims at finding the neural correlates of the cognitive activities that concur to the interpretation of other minds. Of course there is no way of identifying precise neurophysiological patterns that correspond to such a general capacity. At most we could establish a correlation between some of the aspects of mindreading and some neurophysiological schemas. Yet in this case, there is no strict correspondence. Essay 5, by Diego Fernandez-Duque and Jodie A. Baird, highlights these difficulties. The two authors try to test the faculty of following the gaze of the others when it is matched with social stimuli. Unfortunately there is an underlying problem: there are no precise standards according to which we can interpret a certain stimulus as social or non social. This matter is relative to a certain context. For such a reason Fernandez-Duque and Baird conclude that the brain is not subdivided into modules specialize in the computation of social stimuli. It seems more plausible to think of several sub-systems in the brain that implement a number of non-specialized elementary computations. Thus, the social inputs that stimulate these sub-systems can be relative to very different situations too. At the behavioral level, analyzing the social dynamics that occur among several subjects is easier, also in very complicated conditions such as cooperative situations (cf. essay 6), the formation of judgments relative to personal traits (cf. essay 7), and the evaluation of other people's goals (cf. essay 8).
  3. The third section, "Reading One's Own Mind, Reading Other Minds", contains a number of reflections relative to the potential for an individual to interpret other's minds. Unsurprisingly, the cognitive toolbox that we employ for reading other people's minds seems to be the same that we use for reading our own mind. Shockingly, it happens that the brain areas specialized to process information relative to our own psychological states are exactly the same that we use for processing information relative to the psychological states of other people. Jean Decety (cf. essay 9), on the basis of his neurophysiological research, claims that this is the case for empathy, that he considers a psychological capacity. This capacity produces second order representations of other's psychological perspectives by using as a default model the same psychological perspective that a person adopts to represent himself. However, if Decety's hypothesis is right, then it has to deal with the following: how can one person adopt his own cognitive perspective in order to understand the cognitive perspective of other people without getting confused? Decety's answer leads to another hypothesis that postulates the necessity that a person is aware of being empathetic. This kind of self-awareness monitors the different neural subsystems that implement empathy. Therefore, the mechanisms that realize empathic knowledge of others can be the same which effectuates knowledge of ourselves, but they are employed according to different modalities. At the behavioral level, an individual subject applies inferential mechanisms that are activated by different stimuli; these could be relative to the situations in which a person is perceived (cf. essay 10). However, the "self" is not to be considered only as the starting point of the inferential procedures that inform us about others. Rather, we should think of the "self" as identical with a cognitive performance that re-enacts the experiences which are ascribed to others through a simulation process (cf. essay 11). This process seems to be so important that some identify it with a mechanism that precedes and sub-serves self-awareness (cf. essay 12).
  4. The practice of understanding other minds starts up an impressive mass of cognitive devices of any kind. There are many mental and behavioral schemas that are basic for this practice. One of the basic components is linguistic interpretation. Section four, "Language and Other Minds", takes under scrutiny some (to tell the truth, a few and superficial) linguistic aspects of mindreading. Essay 13 analyzes the communicative and informative function of language; they are both considered essential for the development of mindreading. In essay 14 M. Barker and T. GivÚn interpret an experiment that should reveal the act of mindreading in daily conversations. According to the thesis of the two authors, a listener employs mindreading in order to generate a mental model of the speaker by means of perspective taking. The essay seems to explore the psychological counterpart of the Speech Act Theory. This attempt is very interesting, even though the methodological procedure adopted in the experiment is not very convincing. Therefore, the interpretation of the results of the experiment cannot be very convincing either. In general the experiments in which only verbal reports are tested, are always ambiguous. Unfortunately, the same degree of ambiguity underlies the interpretation of the empirical data described in essay 15. Essay 15 evaluates the conceptual misunderstandings that different people form when they assign different meanings to the same words (and yet communication is somewhat successful). The same vague reason reveals how much the judgment about the character of a human being depends on the misleading interpretation of personal traits in essay 16. These, in fact, are always formulated in terms of mental concepts that are often not clear-cut. To be honest, this section could be useful for experimental social psychologists, but is not very significant from a theoretical point-of-view because of the general obscurity of the reported data. However, by joining with the results of the concrete work of social psychologists, one can understand the difficulty to explain complex behaviors that are influenced by many and†† various elements.
  5. Mindreading is a powerful cognitive tool, and likely is one of the secrets of the success of the human race. Yet, like all of the other human capacities, it is limited. To rely on it without caution can have serious consequences. The fifth section, "Limits of Mindreading", collects some investigations about the difficulty of this capacity's application. Essay 17 denounces the excess of egocentrism, that is, the insistence on weighing psychological modalities of others in comparison with one's own psychological modalities. According to the authors of essay 17, this is a fallacy of humans from birth to maturity. They empirically test the misleading egocentric bias in relation to the inaccuracies with which a listener interprets the utterances of speaker. Essay 18 considers the negative impact of taking the emotional perspective of others in predicting their behavior: e.g., if you answer the question: How would a hiker feel after spending 4 days, lost and without food, in an Alaskan desert area? After stepping into the shoes of the hiker, likely your evaluation is unbalanced and not very lucid. Essay 19 evaluates the predictions that certain experimental subjects formulate on the basis of the empathic model of re-enactment of tricky situations, such as new motherhood, alcoholism, and parental divorce. In any case, the predictions produce an incoherent body of data. In essay 20 the aptitude for a member of a couple to interpret the emotions of his partner results in dual judgment. On one hand, accuracy in empathic interpretation can be fruitful for a better understanding of the partners. On the other hand, it seems that the better understanding of the psychological dimension of the partner can seriously endanger the relationship between the members of the couple. In general, essays 17-20 test the effects of empathic mindreading on the psychology of interpersonal relations. Likely, these essays are more interesting for social psychologists rather than for scholars who have an interest in the theoretical import of the capacity of mindreading. In the last and 21st essay of the 5th section which concludes the book, Robyn Langdon retakes an important theoretical reflection. Prof. Langdon compares autism and schizophrenia in relation with mindreading. In fact, subjects with autism and schizophrenia, although different in symptomatological, epidemiological, and diagnostic points-of-view, both possess deficits in mindreading. Yet the impairment of mindreading in autistic people differs from the one in schizophrenics. Langdon, relying on a her own experiment of visual perspective taking in schizophrenics, does not explain the deficits of mindreading in schizophrenics and autistics on the basis of a common etiology (like Chris Frith does in his 1992 book "The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Schizophrenia – book that Langdon curiously enough neglects). According to Langdon, schizophrenics lack †††a world-centered frame of reference, by means of which non schizophrenic people can position themselves as subjects endowed with a cognitive perspective among other intentional subjects. This incapacity is caused by a handicap in simulating (here though Langdon by "simulation" means somewhat an idiosyncratic, little clear, and rather misleading concept) the subjective experience of others. Likely such a handicap is domain-specific. Unfortunately, Langdon does not clarify whether her explanation of the mindreading impairment in schizophrenics can be also useful to explain mindblindness in subjects with autism. The natural conclusion to draw is that mindreading is a general capacity, very intricate, and its complexity is revealed by unfortunate malfunctions. These malfunctions differ and have varying etiologies, as in the case of autism and schizophrenia.

All of the essays in the book edited by Malle and Hodges are properly written, and offer a broad and interdisciplinary survey of the themes that can be discussed in relation to the problem of other minds. If this was, originally, a philosophical problem, Other Minds clearly proves that psychological sciences can work to find a solution for it. The way in which psychology deals with the problem is thought-provoking, and is maybe more stimulating than the way in which philosophers have treated it in the past. However, among those that I have quickly reviewed, the essays most interesting for me are the ones which are theoretically relevant, or at least raise theoretical doubts. These are essays 4 and 21 focusing on theoretical and conceptual foundations of the capacity of mindreading. Maybe the fact that I preferred the most theoretical essays is not only a matter of personal taste, but it could also be notable. It might further suggest that the more concrete answers proposed by scientific psychology adopting an empirical methodology raise several theoretical questions. Psychologists also have to recognize the need of theory, even about very pragmatic issues. Otherwise they might fall under the Wittgensteinian curse of the Philosophical Investigations (2nd part, section XIV) against psychology, whose experimental methods are doomed to an inescapable conceptual confusion. After reading the volume edited by Malle and Hodges, and the jungle of concepts (sometimes obscure) that are contained in it, anyone who has read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations will remember that dismissive passage. Likely, in order to exorcise Wittgenstein's curse against psychology and, therefore, against this book, we should consider it as a good collection of the results of empirical psychological investigations. Yet many other remarks, both theoretical and methodological, have to be made about its content.

 

© 2006 Giacomo Romano

 

Giacomo Romano, PhD, Philosophy Department, University of Siena (Italy)


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