Friday, May 11, 2007

Integrating different theory of mind models.

Keysers and Gazzola propose a speculative model (Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Volume 11, Issue 5, May 2007, Pages 194-196. PDF here) that attempts to integrate the perspective of two polarized camps:
The simulation camp focuses on so-called shared circuits (SCs) that are involved in one's own actions, sensations and emotions and in perceiving those of others. The theory of mind (ToM) camp emphasizes the role of midline structures in mentalizing about the states of others.

Social cognitions range from the intuitive examples studied by simulationists to the reflective ones used by ToM investigators. Witnessing someone drink a glass of milk with a face contracting in an expression of disgust is an example at the intuitive extreme of this continuum. In such cases, premotor and parietal areas for actions, the insula for emotions and and SII for sensations form SCs that translate the bodily states of others into the neural language of our own states. These SCs seem to implement a pre-reflective, intuitive and empathic level of representation: neural activity in these areas does not require specific instructions that encourage conscious reflections.

Thinking about what gift would please a foreign colleague is an example at the more reflective extreme. In such cases, we must browse consciously through what we know about his country and culture to deduce what he might like. Such explicit knowledge about the inner life of others is the product of reflecting upon the states of others and is linked with activity in midline structures and the temporoparietal junction. False beliefs are prototypical examples of such reflective representations.

They suggest a working hypothesis:

While dealing with states of the self, areas of the SCs represent pre-reflective bodily states. If asked to introspect and report these states, subjects additionally activate (v)mPFC structures. When dealing with states of other individuals, activity in SCs might represent the empathic transformation of the bodily states of others into pre-reflective neural representations of similar states of the self. These simulated pre-reflective representations correlate with empathy and might provide an intuitive understanding of what goes on in others. If asked to reflect on the states of others, the pathways that are normally used to reflect on the bodily representations of the self are now used on simulated bodily states of others, leading to simulated reflective representations. Thus, SCs and midline structures form an integrated system that applies to cases where we perceive the other as similar enough for simulation to be useful. In this view, both SCs and vmPFC reflect simulation, albeit at different levels (pre-reflective versus reflective), rather than radically different processes (SC versus ToM).

Illustration of the model (click to enlarge). The self is shown in red, the other is shown in green and candidate brain areas that are thought to implement representation are shown in blue. During our own experiences, pre-reflective representations can lead, through introspection, to reflective representations (red). While witnessing the states of others, mirroring leads to activations that simulate pre-reflective representations of our own bodily states. A process of social introspection, utilizing the mechanisms of introspection, activates representations that simulate reflective representations of our own bodily states. A more cognitive route leads to more abstract knowledge about the other that escapes from the constraints of our own experiences.

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