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Reading Minds and Mental States

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Reading Minds and Mental States

Sarah Kim


            Theory of mind (ToM) is the cognitive ability to assign and interpret mental states – beliefs, desires, intents, etc. – to oneself and to others.  ToM is a specified aspect of social cognition “which is regarded to be a highly specialized, human-specific skill that forms a crucial prerequisite to function in social groups.”[i]  Moreover, it allows humans to employ empathy or to read each other in social situations.  While certain social skills need to be taught and refined through experience and exposure to actual situations, a rudimentary ability to “read” other people’s minds and to respond with corresponding behavior exists and is controlled by the brain. What appears to be all nurture, actually has a lot to do with nature, and the neurobiology behind social cognition is actually very critical in the social arena.

            In a study by Professor Elke Kalbe and colleagues from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at the Research Centre Juelich and the Neurological University Clinic Cologne, Germany, a group of male volunteers were asked to perform a computerized task to assess emotional and rational interference in the aims of exploring how the brain actually conducts and allows for ToM to occur.  The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DL-PFC) of the brain is associated with sensory, mnemonic information, and the regulation of intellectual functions; therefore, it is widely theorized that the DL-PFC is responsible for rational inference[ii].  To test the role of this part of the brain in ToM ability, Kelbe,, applied repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to the right DL-PFC, which interfered with its activity.  The results reveal that this temporary interference has a selective effect on rational inference abilities (cognitive ToM) but not on emotional inference abilities (affective ToM).  It has experimentally proven that it is the DL-PFC that regulates the brain activity of cognitive ToM.  Furthermore, this study provides evidence that cognitive ToM and affective ToM are functionally independent. 

            Affective ToM, as it turns out, is also regulated by specific parts of the brain.  Daniela Mier, et. al conducted a study to explore affective ToM and its relation to emotion recognition.  In their study, forty subjects were asked to complete a facial emotion recognition task and an emotional intention recognition (affective ToM) task analyzed by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  The facial emotion recognition task asked participants to identify the emotions of fear, disgust, anger and joy in a set of photos. Then for emotional intention (affective ToM) recognition, they were shown photos of emotional expressions with a corresponding statement and they were asked to analyze whether that statement matched the actual picture.  Results revealed activation in the inferior frontal gyrus, the superior temporal sulcus, the temporal pole and the amygdala when approached with these tasks.  This underscores the connection between emotion recognition and affective ToM.  The process in which we recognize emotions is related to the process in which we rationalize what the intentions of these emotions can mean – i.e. if emotion is fear, then affective ToM can reveal that perhaps the subject is fearful and wants to run away.  Mier’s study also suggests that the least basal forms of ToM occur by an “embodied, non-cognitive process.”[iii]  The biology of our brains helps us detect these mental states; therefore, our resultant behavior of ToM is controlled and limited by our body and the theory of embodied cognition strikes again.

            Clearly, we humans, do possess this neurobiological ability to discern both the rational intentions and emotional intentions of ourselves and those around us.  If ToM truly is an example of embodied cognition, then our output behavior should be relatively controlled.  If the biological processes involve the same regions in our brains, shouldn’t our behavior reflect a similar uniformity?  Why is it that two people respond differently when confronted with the same social situation?  One person can act within the limits of etiquette with charm and grace, and the other can fumble into an awkward mess.  These discrepancies reveal the complexities in human behavior and response.  The ideals of society shift possible social interactions and thus, can carefully dictate what possible mental states can occur.

            The ability to read each other may be innately a biological one, regulated by neurobiological processes in the brain.  However, the things that are “being read” are dependent on sociological and societal inputs.  People perceive different realities in different contexts (time periods, places, etc.), which allows for different behavior.  This variation in perception determines what we actually see when we read others.  The complexity of human life and experience create unique vistas that help us read situations at different degrees of successful interaction.  To conclude, I would like to suggest that our unique perceptions of our worlds help strengthen our innate biological ability to conduct in ToM.  For our more awkward friends, perhaps they simply need to harness the ToM and get more practice.



[i] Kalbe, Elke, et. al. "Dissociating cognitive from affective theory of mind: A TMS study." Cortex, 46; 769-780. 2010.

[ii] Vogeley K, Bussfeld P, Newen A, Herrmann S, Happe F, Falkai P, et al. “Mind reading: Neural mechanisms of theory of mind and self-perspective.” NeuroImage, 14: 170–181, 2001.

[iii] Mier D, et. al. "The involvement of emotion recognition in affective theory of mind." Psychophysiology. 2010.