Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other's minds

By Rebecca C.

Rebecca Saxe has an interesting job, studying one's mind and how we react with other people's minds. She addresses how we often want to change people's minds and the ideas they have and how it is so hard to read one's mind. She also states that she is going to discuss the other side of this idea and how easy it is to read one's mind and how we do so. We are all, as humans, equipped with tools in our brain to know what other people are thinking; differences in these regions of our brain trigger different judgments within adults and it takes a long time throughout childhood and beyond, to develop these skills and use this region of our brain.

Rebecca discusses how it is easy for us to read one's mind just from one snapshot. She displays a picture of a man jumping off a cliff into water, and a woman smiling as she holds a baby, and the audience realizes that yes, it is easy for them to figure out what those people are thinking. Her job is to "try to understand how you can put together simple messages over space and time in a network and get this human capacity to think about minds." In her talk, she addresses the first few steps of dissecting the problems of other people's minds. One is the special brain region that we have, two is the late development of our minds, and lastly how the differences between people and their judgements, can be explained by this brain system. We have a special region or part in our brain, who's job it is to think of other people's thoughts. It is called the RTPJ and it is above and behind our right ear, and we don't use it to solve any other problems other than reading other people's minds. She now goes on to say how as adults, we all have a developed RTPJ, but it took us a long way to get there and how from the young age of 3, it is a slow and long process to develop. From the ages of 5 -8, the RTPJ is much less specialized in doing nothing else but reading people's minds, compared to a developed adult RTPJ. Even at ages 8-11, they don't quite have the adult specialized region of the brain. So as children get older, their RTPJ gets more specialized in only thinking of other minds, as they learn more about what other people would be thinking. As you also know, adults differ from each other in how well they are able to read other people's minds or how often they do so, and this, as Rebecca says, has to do with the RTPJ brain system. The high amount of activity in an adult's RTPJ as they think of other people's minds make them have judgments that differ from the ones that have low activity in their RTPJ. Rebecca also uses an example to support this idea. She then states that with this information, they wish to be able to interfere with this function of the brain, and see if they could change people's moral judgment. As of now, they do have a tool to do so; it is called TMS and it sends a magnetic pulse through one's skull, into one region of the brain, and temporarily disorganizes the neurons in that brain region. This is an alarming thought, but she states that you can't be TMSed without knowing it and that also, the changes that the machine can make, are very small compared to the moral judgments we have and make in our brains. Also, with this machine, what they are doing is not changing people's minds when they make their own choices, and decisions to act upon something; rather their judgements upon what other people's actions are.

This research on the RTPJ and how we can think about other people's minds is so fascinating to me. When Rebecca displayed the pictures of the man jumping off the cliff, or the woman holding her baby, I was surprised at how easy it actually was to read their minds. I never realized how something we do naturally, has such a big impact on the way our society runs, on the way we all interact with each other. The way Rebecca explains it and the way she delves into the sole reason we judge other people, I don't think I can ever think the same way about someone again. When I say that, I mean when asked to judge what a person has done, after what Rebecca has said about judgements we make and how it associates with how much we are using our RTPJ and paying attention to the problem, I think I would certaintly pay attention and try to think more clearly about the situation in which I am asked to evaluate. In other words, I would try to use my RTPJ to the fullest, after now knowing what is really going on in my mind. Also, I feel as though I will look at children differently in a case of reading other people's minds. Often, when children think a certain way about who is to blame, we think they are being ridiculous, sometimes selfish, when truly, it is their non-developed RTPJ. Children do not have the capacity that us adults have, of judging one's actions correctly because it takes so long to develop this region of the brain. I believe that Rebecca, and other scientists like her, are extremely intelligent. I was blown away with how much they already know about such things, and how they have already found a tool able to change how people judge!

This is definitely a huge step in knowing the human mind, and it's another huge step in what I know about the human mind. Rebecca has taught me something new, that I don't think I could forget, considering judgement of other people is so common in high school and will probably continue throughout the next 10 years of my life, and even beyond. I know now that we have a specialized region of our brain to read other people's minds and that judgement is based on this region of our brain, and that it takes many years of adolescence for us to develop this ability in our own minds. It is a difficult idea to grasp, and I hope scientists continue to gain further success in finding more information on the human mind.

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