Mind Theorist

Knowledge of how the brain intuits what someone else is thinking helps Rebecca Saxe devise possible solutions to seemingly intractable political and social conflict

Scientific AmericanDecember 2012

Have you ever stopped to consider what a brilliant mind reader you are? If someone in your field of view experiences a sudden happy thought or a wave of anger, you do not need to be told. You just seem to know. Of course, this ability is not based on psychic powers but on the reading of small clues: a distinctive curl of the lips for joy, a clenching of the jaw for pique. Think of how a mime, working without words, can evoke an entire story, with multiple characters, each with their own intentions, beliefs and desires — all because we are remarkably skilled at imagining the mental lives of others.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rebecca Saxe, 33, is part of a scientific movement to better understand this ability, known as theory of mind. Saxe established that there is a single location in the brain, the right temporoparietal junction, where this thinking is centered. The finding surprised neuroscientists be- cause theory of mind is an abstract and involved ability, the kind they would have expected to involve large swaths of the cortex. Yet, according to Saxe, this little section of brain, just behind the right ear, drives much of what we associate with humanity—conversation, friendship, love, empathy, morality. And art: theory of mind is why humans write novels and why they read them.

Although Saxe’s curriculum vitae lists her credentials as a neuroscientist, she might just as easily be called a philosopher. After growing up in Ontario, she went to the University of Oxford to study, unsure of which career path to follow. Today her tools include computers and brain scanners, but the questions are enduring. What is the relation between our ability to deduce what others think and the three-pound mass we call the brain? How do ideas relate to experience?

Saxe’s laboratory has undertaken broad-ranging investigations into language, moral reasoning, autism, causal reasoning and the development of the brain. But she has a particular passion for conflict resolution. She and her colleague, Emile Bruneau, hope to discover how our theory of mind skills fail us when considering an enemy and how understanding these failures might help mend divided societies. The world would be a better place, Saxe says, if our mind-reading skills, good as they are, could be improved. Excerpts follow.

Scientific American: How did your passion for science lead you to study the brain? 

Saxe: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea that the things that matter most to us are built out of simple, tiny parts you can understand. When I was a kid, I was interested in the way atoms and molecules make up all the stuff around us. I wanted to be a chemist. Then I became interested in all the chemical and cellular parts that make up our bodies; I wanted to be a biologist.

By the time I was 16 or 17, what most blew my mind was the brain. From one cell sending one electrical signal to another cell, you can build up our minds, our thoughts, our conscious experiences. People sometimes say the two fundamental problems in science are the origins of the universe and the structure of the mind. You can fall in love with either one for the same reason.

How did you choose your current area of study within neuroscience?

I use neuroscience to study in humans what you can’t study in other animals — things like language and morality.

The parts of our brains that we understand best are those that are shared with animals and most connected to the input and output. For example, how do we parse a visual scene into the dark parts and the white parts or into sofas and tables? Our visual system has a lot in common with cats and monkeys, and we have decent theories about how this works. The same thing goes for motor control, which neuroscientists have been studying since the late 19th century.

All of that is incredibly important, and sometimes I find it tempting to work in a part of neuroscience where there is a lot of knowledge. There is something very satisfying about knowing a lot about a system and adding to it in a cumulative program. But I was seduced the other way, toward the parts of the mind and brain that we know the least about.

Is that what drew you to trying to understand “theory of mind”?

Yes, it’s a deep, fundamental, wide-open problem. But I am also drawn to theory of mind because it has so many potential applications. There are clinical applications for people with disorders of social cognition such as autism and social anxiety. Many of the neurodevelopment dis- orders about which we know the least are the ones that have social components.

To run our society well, we need to understand the way minds work. We need to understand one another and ourselves and how we think about others. We have to coordinate societies to function together. We won’t ever be able to do that well if we are systematically wrong about what other people are thinking.

For example, there are huge efforts being devoted toward conflict resolution in the world. Yet these efforts are largely based on intuitive theories of mind—on commonsense notions about how other people work, what will change their thinking and behavior, what causes conflict, and what will diffuse it.

These intuitive theories of mind are pretty good, just as our intuitive physics is pretty good. With our intuitive physics, we can catch baseballs. But for some applications, pretty good is not good enough. If you tried to go to the moon using intuitive physics, you would miss.

With conflict resolution, I sometimes feel that we are trying to go to the moon and missing.

How did you become involved 
in conflict resolution?

When I was first starting up my lab, I got an e-mail from Emile Bruneau, a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He told me he was passionate about understanding how people change their minds about one another and how conflicts get resolved. He said, “I think this is the deep problem, I think it’s desperately in need of a science, and I think neuroscience could help.” I wrote back to him and said, “You’re crazy. What you are suggesting is probably not possible.”

But after talking to him, I concluded that this was in fact a very important problem and that this was a person with a vision. Honestly, we’re five years in, and I still don’t know how useful neuroscience is going to be. But Emile thinks about these problems waking and sleeping, 24 hours a day, whether he’s working or not. This is the thing he wants to do in the world—and that’s the person you want to work with.

What can neuroscience bring 
to conflict resolution?

Think about something like bias. There are many reasons for people to tell you they’re not biased. They don’t want to be biased; they know the right answer is not to be biased. Often people are not even aware of their own biases. So there is a big problem: How do you measure and change something that people are not entirely aware of, that they don’t want to admit and that they have a motivation to cover up?

It would be much better if you could find a way to measure something like bias directly, and this is where neuroscience comes in. If we can figure out the bias mechanism in the brain, we can measure bias, instead of asking people to tell us if they are biased. Then, if we could measure bias, we would have a more accurate way to test different approaches to conflict resolution. We could simply test people’s level of bias before and after different types of intervention and see which one’s best.

These goals are a long way off. But I suspect that what is happening in conflicts is a complex, insidious set of biases in how one side thinks about the emotions and motivations of the other side. Each thinks that the other is driven by ideology not reasons or that the other side only understands the language of violence. These elements of theory of mind are critical and relatively neglected.

Can you explain your study on what you call “perspective giving”?

Our objective was to use a scientific approach to study dialogue: what happens when two people from opposite sides of a conflict get a chance to talk to each other about their views and experiences. Many conflict resolution programs rely on dialogue, but there are very few scientific studies about whether it works.

We had the idea that dialogue has two sides. In one, perspective taking, you’re hearing someone else’s perspective. In the other, you’re the one who is really being heard—we call that perspective giving. Also, in many conflicts, one group has relatively more power. We suspected the effects of dialogue might not be symmetric.

We studied two pairs in conflict—Palestinians and Israelis, as well as Mexican immigrants and white Arizonans—and the people from the relatively less empowered group show positive improvements in their attitudes only if they’re in the perspective-giving role, if they are the ones who are explaining their side. For them, there is no benefit to being asked to take the perspective of the relatively dominant person. But for the dominant group, the strongest benefits of dialogue came from perspective taking, from listening to the other side.

We are not suggesting that dialogue programs should be completely asymmetric with only one side talking and one side listening. But it’s important to understand that talking and listening can accomplish different things for different groups. For example, I recently heard about [an unpublished study by Phillip Hammack of the University of California, Santa Cruz, describing] what happens in dialogues between Arabs and Israelis. They found the Israelis talk a lot more than Arabs. If everybody benefits when the Arabs are talking, then at least there should be mechanisms in place to try to increase the probability that they’re talking.

Might these same insights also apply in personal relationships?

Yes, to the extent that you are the empowered person in the situation, you should work extra hard to listen, to get new information and to hear where the other person is coming from. For the disempowered person, the experience of being heard can help open barriers and unblock bad situations.

Are there other ways
 this work might apply on 
a more personal level?

Another thing that we are working on is how people reason about arguments they disagree with. The goal of conflict resolution programs is not necessarily to change what people think. We just want people to see the potential validity of the other side.

This is what we want to understand better—the difference between disagreeing with something because you have this reaction that tells you it’s crazy versus disagreeing while understanding where it’s coming from.

This would certainly seem
 to be an issue in the U.S.

Yes, this is something we are examining now. America has reached a particularly partisan moment in its history. We’re interested in how people think about the arguments—and the people—on the other side of major issues such as the environment or gay marriage.

We’re not trying to figure out why people are for or against gay marriage. We want to see if we can change their minds about why anyone would ever have a different opinion. A lot of people seem to be saying the only reason anyone would hold a different opinion is if they’re immoral or crazy. It’s the sense that you must be crazy if you disagree with me that may be worth trying to change.