SciBar 25: Mind Reading

5 July 16 words: Gav Squires
Peter Mitchell from the University of Nottingham joined SciBar to discuss "Being Sherlock Holmes: Reading minds from clues in behaviour"
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Uta Frith claimed that Sherlock Holmes had autism. However, he was an excellent judge of character who was able to infer from fleeting clues what people had been doing, where and with whom. Miss Marple is able to connect with people and has a good understanding of minds, whereas Holmes doesn't. However, he could apply his intellect to solve complex problems. Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes on a doctor who tutored him in Edinburgh – clearly also a basis for House – but how good are ordinary people at mind reading?

Well, it turns out that people are surprisingly good at making psychological inferences. This is because it is adaptive. If you were isolated, all you’d know would be inferred from your senses. Instead, we can know the world through the lenses of people around us. This is called social referencing; it's being parasitic on other's minds to know things in the world that we can't experience through our own senses. Toddlers use this to learn from the mind of their mother. The infant can tell if she is calm or anxious, and so, whether something is safe or dangerous. Direct communication has its roots in social referencing.

There are four principles for mind reading research:

  • Natural stimuli
  • Truth condition (objective criteria)
  • Separating competence from bias
  • The mind is embodied in behaviour differently in different people. Some people are more readable that others.

We read minds by interpreting behaviour, and behaviour is the product of causal change. There is proximal cause – the state of the target's mind, and distal cause – the thing in the world that caused that state of mind. Can we guess what has happened in the world to cause the behaviour? If so, we have inferred the distal cause and hence the proximal cause.

How well can we interpret facial expressions? Ekman pictures (a series of photographs of people's faces) are no good as they are posed. This means that there is an absence of underlying mental state. Instead, we should use natural expressions. What is the state inside the mind? What has caused that state? Can we infer from the behaviour what has happened? No. We need to know that a behaviour is part of a range and that the behaviour reflects the mind rather than the world.

Some people are hard to read, such as people with autism. Does that mean that people with autism are less expressive? It turns out that in experiments, they are just as expressive as neuro-typical people, apart from when receiving compliments. People with autism just react differently. How well can people with autism read others? In another experiment, people were given one of three gifts; chocolate, a handmade novelty gift or some Monopoly money. Participants in the experiment saw people's reactions and had to guess which gift they had been given. In the case of chocolate or the novelty gift, people with autism weren't as good as neurotypical at making judgements as they aren't as good at differentiating between a natural positive response and a fake one. Research has also shown that there is no correlation between how empathetic someone is and how good they are at reading others.

How do we ensure a natural behaviour from a target? They are shown images on a laptop and unbeknown to them, the webcam is switched on and records their reaction. In one experiment, these videos were shown to perceivers and they were asked to judge whether the target was alone or accompanied. They were also asked how expressive the targets were. Regardless of whether the targets were shown a positive or a negative image, the perceivers could tell whether or not they were alone. They also thought that people were more expressive when they were accompanied and shown positive stimuli.

Can you know something about a third party reflected in a target's face? Research has shown that perceivers are good at telling certain emotions of a third party, especially happiness and disgust.

Finally, Peter tells us about a slightly spurious experiment – are Mediterranean people better at mind reading that British people? Targets were asked to think about an event that had caused them to feel pride, excitement, shame or guilt and were filmed via secret webcam. Mediterranean perceivers were better at reading both other Mediterranean people and British targets. There was no difference in overall readability between the groups so there was no own race/own group effect. However, the Mediterranean perceivers did score higher on a collective scale. Could this societal closeness lead to better mind reading?

SciBar returns to the Vat and Fiddle on the 27th of July at 7:30pm where Dr Lars Jeuken from the University of Leeds will be talking about "Biotechnology in solar power".

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