A pinboard by
Giulia Elli

PhD student, Johns Hopkins University


Representing different types of person and individuals

Much of the way we reason about other people’s mental state and physical abilities is general. All humans have beliefs, desires, goals and emotions. They see, hear and feel. If we wave at them across the room, they will see us. They can’t see behind their head, but if we tap them on the shoulder, they will detect us and turn around. We know that people act to achieve their goals. That they become happy when their desires are fulfilled, and surprised when their beliefs turn out to be false.
However, much of the everyday inferences we make about people’s mental states are not this generic. They crucially depend on what we think that particular person is going to think and do. If I make joke will this person be offended or think it’s funny? If I lend this person money, will they pay me back? If I elect this person as my president, will they make good decisions? I’m interested in how we represent different types of person and individuals, especially when they’re different from us. How nuanced are our representations of people’s characteristics and personality? How do they change over development? Do we have a neural “people representational space”? To answer these questions, I use behavioral, developmental and fMRI studies exploring how children and adults think about other people.


Thinking about seeing: perceptual sources of knowledge are encoded in the theory of mind brain regions of sighted and blind adults.

Abstract: Blind people's inferences about how other people see provide a window into fundamental questions about the human capacity to think about one another's thoughts. By working with blind individuals, we can ask both what kinds of representations people form about others' minds, and how much these representations depend on the observer having had similar mental states themselves. Thinking about others' mental states depends on a specific group of brain regions, including the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). We investigated the representations of others' mental states in these brain regions, using multivoxel pattern analyses (MVPA). We found that, first, in the RTPJ of sighted adults, the pattern of neural response distinguished the source of the mental state (did the protagonist see or hear something?) but not the valence (did the protagonist feel good or bad?). Second, these neural representations were preserved in congenitally blind adults. These results suggest that the temporo-parietal junction contains explicit, abstract representations of features of others' mental states, including the perceptual source. The persistence of these representations in congenitally blind adults, who have no first-person experience with sight, provides evidence that these representations emerge even in the absence of relevant first-person perceptual experiences.

Pub.: 25 Jun '14, Pinned: 25 Aug '17