Reading the Minds of Others: Dissociable Neural Processes and Their Social Consequences

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Reading the Minds of Others: Dissociable Neural Processes and Their Social Consequences

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Title: Reading the Minds of Others: Dissociable Neural Processes and Their Social Consequences
Author: Jenkins, Adrianna
Citation: Jenkins, Adrianna. 2012. Reading the Minds of Others: Dissociable Neural Processes and Their Social Consequences. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: The ability to infer the contents of other minds--i.e., to mentalize--is a foundation of human social functioning, allowing individuals to respond to to the hidden thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, and feelings underlying others' overt behavior (e.g., forgiving an offender who didn't intend to cause harm; surmising that a friend who says he is fine might really be feeling blue). Given that no one can actually see into the mind of another person, a central goal of ongoing research is to understand how the brain accomplishes mentalizing and how different mentalizing strategies affect behavior toward others. The present work unites three sets of experiments in order to critically consider a particular idea about how mentalizing is accomplished, which is that perceivers use their own minds as models for "simulating" the minds of other people. A prediction of this account is that shared processes should be associated with thinking about one's own mind (i.e., introspection) and mentalizing about others. Using fMRI, Parts 1 and 2 reveal that a brain region associated with introspection (the medial prefrontal cortex; MPFC) is engaged during mentalizing, and that it is especially engaged under particular circumstances: when the target of mentalizing is similar to the perceiver (Part 1) and when inferences about others' mental states are uncertain (i.e., when there are several plausible alternatives; Part 2). In turn, Part 3 explores the consequences of the relationship between introspection and mentalizing, revealing that greater use of introspective processes during mentalizing about a suffering person is associated with greater preference for behaviors that extinguish the person's suffering in the short term, even if they have adverse consequences for the person's longer-term welfare. In the context of other recent research, the discussion considers two alternative interpretations of the current findings with implications for whether, and in what sense, perceivers simulate the minds of others. Ultimately, these findings constrain theory about the processes by which humans reason about the contents of other minds, offering new insight into what goes on in situations--and people--in which mentalizing succeeds and fails.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10304457
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