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.
Abstract: A theory of conceptual development must specify the innate representational primitives, must characterize the ways in which the initial state differs from the adult state, and must characterize the processes through which one is transformed into the other. The Origin of Concepts (henceforth TOOC) defends three theses. With respect to the initial state, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual, or sensorimotor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, conceptual development consists of episodes of qualitative change, resulting in systems of representation that are more powerful than, and sometimes incommensurable with, those from which they are built. With respect to a learning mechanism that achieves conceptual discontinuity, I offer Quinian bootstrapping. TOOC concludes with a discussion of how an understanding of conceptual development constrains a theory of concepts.
Pub.: 17 Jun '11, Pinned: 25 Aug '17
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
Abstract: Research on emotion attribution has tended to focus on the perception of overt expressions of at most five or six basic emotions. However, our ability to identify others' emotional states is not limited to perception of these canonical expressions. Instead, we make fine-grained inferences about what others feel based on the situations they encounter, relying on knowledge of the eliciting conditions for different emotions. In the present research, we provide convergent behavioral and neural evidence concerning the representations underlying these concepts. First, we find that patterns of activity in mentalizing regions contain information about subtle emotional distinctions conveyed through verbal descriptions of eliciting situations. Second, we identify a space of abstract situation features that well captures the emotion discriminations subjects make behaviorally and show that this feature space outperforms competing models in capturing the similarity space of neural patterns in these regions. Together, the data suggest that our knowledge of others' emotions is abstract and high dimensional, that brain regions selective for mental state reasoning support relatively subtle distinctions between emotion concepts, and that the neural representations in these regions are not reducible to more primitive affective dimensions such as valence and arousal.
Pub.: 28 Jul '15, Pinned: 25 Aug '17
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