Insight into the theory of mind


This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention, but in addition to writing nonfiction, I also write fiction—specifically, science fiction and fantasy.

Now, the writing of fiction is a very odd thing, in that it involves the making up of characters: people who don’t really exist, but for whom the illusion of existence is created by the words the author puts on the page.

Quite often, these people are very different from the author. I recently interviewed renowned Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer for FreeLance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. The main character in his latest book, Wake, is a blind teenage girl, Caitlin Decter. Now, although Sawyer can draw on some experience at the age of 12 of being blind (eyes bandaged) for a few days, he has never been, nor will he ever be, a teenage girl.

But as he puts it, “The most interesting thing as a writer is to try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, get inside somebody who is not like you. It’s like being an actor. No ambitious actor wants to play the part that’s closest to who he or she actually is. They want to play the part that’s the biggest stretch for them.

“I’m writing my 20th novel. I’ve written a hundred significant characters. If they were all middle aged bald white guys who watched way too much Star Trek when they were young, they’d be boring.”

In a way, it sounds impossible, to “get inside somebody who is not like you.” But in fact, we all do it all the time, predicting how other people will react to a given situation, even if it isn’t one we’ve experienced ourselves…and scientists have just begun to figure out the brain mechanisms that enable us to do so.

And interestingly enough, the work is based on the study of people who are congenitally blind…like Caitlin Decter.

Our ability to figure out what other people are thinking is called “theory of mind,” and there are two main theories about how it works.

One, called simulation, suggests that when we try to figure out other people’s mental reactions to an event, we try to match experiences we’ve had to the experience the other person is having.

The other theory proposes that we each carry within our brains an abstract model of how minds work, just as we have a model of how the physical world works. Just as we know that if we drop a watermelon from a ten-story building it will splatter, even though we’ve never actually done it, we can figure out how other people will react to an experience even if we’ve never had a similar experience ourselves.

MIT neuroscientists Marina Bedny and Rebecca Saxe decided to test these competing theories by studying congenitally blind people who, since they’ve never had visual input, can’t reason about the visual experiences of others the way sighted people do. The example they give is that while a blind person could understand the experience of being happy at seeing a love letter from a boyfriend, she would have no memories of that exact experience herself.

However, Bedny and Saxe found that blind people performed just as well in predicting the feelings of other people as sighted people did. Not only that, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans revealed that blind people and sighted people used the same brain regions when predicting other people’s mental states—even though other studies have shown that the brains of blind people can reorganize themselves, giving over the cortex that normally processes visual information to language processing, for example.

All of which seems to indicate that we can understand other people’s experiences because we carry a model of how human brains work within our own brain, not because we’ve necessarily shared similar experiences.

Which brings me back to writing. There’s an old adage to “write what you know,” and yet writers—especially science fiction writers—often write about things they could never possibly experience, and readers are quite capable of understanding and enjoying those impossible experiences.

It seems to me that if we could only understand other people’s experiences if we’d had similar experiences ourselves, writing fiction—especially science fiction—would be impossible.

In other words, Bedny and Saxe, nice study—but I could have told you that.

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    • on July 1, 2009 at 4:48 pm
    • Reply

    I suspect it’s like most other human abilities: they aren’t apportioned equally to all of us. Human beings, after all, are capable of running a mile in under four minutes, but that doesn’t mean we can all run a mile in under four minutes (and I’m looking at myself, here…)

    • Garth Spencer on July 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm
    • Reply

    Dear Mr. Willett,

    The one problem I have with this “theory of mind” thing is that some of us are very poor at deducing what others are thinking or feeling. I am thinking of autistics, both as children and as adults. It doesn’t take a very severe form of autism, or unusually uncommunicative or inconsistent people, to severely mitigate someone’s employment and relationships.

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