Blog Post

"The role of self in understanding other minds" and the digital age

As part of the Emerging Themes of Social Neuroscience series, Jason Mitchell of Harvard University gave a presentation at Duke University on 3/17/11 titled "The role of self in understanding other minds". His studies attempt to understand what tools humans use to understand the behaviors and decisions of others. The experiments he outlined during the presentation aimed to show the overlapping neural systems of what he called a proxy system. Philosophers first spoke of this system as predictions and inferences of ones own thoughts or feelings if he were in the same situation as another. In general, the hypothesis is that similar regions of the brain (such as the medial prefrontal cortex) are activated when one is in a situation, or is thinking about someone else in that situation. His first experiment required subjects to perform a task similar to the IAT test (looking at faces of liberal and conservative individuals). The liberal subjects tended to associate themselves with the liberal other. The fMRI studies showed that the subjects utilized brain regions associated with judgments about self when answering questions about the liberal others. They relied on a strategy in which they answered questions for themselves and projected those answers as the responses of the other. The subjects were also responsive to individuals that they thought were similar to themselves (liberals) rather than different (conservative). His second experiment also gave strong data showing that there are overlapping regions of the brain that are activated when thinking about the self and when thinking about the other. Mitchells third experiment involved writing stories in first person versus third person and then answering a series of qualitative questions about the storys character. Subjects showed a greater response in the self-brain regions after writing in first person rather than third person.

Next, Mitchell posited that humans view the future versions of themselves as different entities. Subjects self-brain regions were more active when making decisions that were current versus decisions about the future. In monetary tasks ($10 now or later), the patient individuals showed no difference in the regions when thinking about the present or future. Impatient individuals, however, showed a big difference in the level of activation of those regions. Mitchell suggested that imagining the future and imagining others circumstances both activate certain self-brain regions but that shortsighted decisions come about when we are not fully able to imagine the situations as a subjective experience of ourselves.

Professor Cathy Davidson's course titled This is Your Brain on the Internet has taught me to wonder how the studies I hear about in my neuroscience coursework could relate to the digital world. The anonymity of the Internet --  the ease with which we can withhold information about ourselves --  could hinder this proxy system that is vital to social behavior. But at the same time, the far-reaching global aspects of the Internet allows us to broaden our experiences which we can then use to understand anothers condition more efficiently.

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