Over at The Situationist there is a recent post on the work of Rebecca Saxe , a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, on the brain localization of thought about the minds of others, and about moral reasoning that involves the attribution of mental states to others. They basically cut and paste an article on Saxe from the MIT News office, but there’s much in this of potential interest to What Sorters (perhaps including the pattern of female descent in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences) here. I heard Saxe give a mighty fine talk (on prosody and listeners’ representations) at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology annual meeting last week in the City of Brotherly Love. A little more on the work itself on folk attributions, its location, and where it seems to be heading vis-a-vis work on autism and moral cognition, two current hot topics at the interface of philosophy and psychology.
We possess some kind of knowledge that allows us to understand the actions of other people in terms of the mental states, traits, and dispositions they have–beliefs, desires, fears, feelings, intentions, perceptions, drives, etc–none of which we literally see. Since the late 1970s, it has been common to think of our capacity to interpret each other psychologically in terms of our having a theory of mind. Lots of debate over how to think about theory of mind, including its putative absence or diminishment in the autistic population, a claim stemming from Simon Baron-Cohen’s 1995 book Mindblindness.
Saxe has found that a particular region of the brain, the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ for the monosyllabic) shows heightened activity, as measured by fMRI and BOLD technologies, when people perform experimental tasks that place demands on their understanding of the mental states of others. As with much fMRI work, the interpretation of these studies in terms of discovering the brain locus for “theory of mind” or “social cognition” is controversial, since TPJ (like many brain regions) is involved in many other cognitive functions. But if RTPJ is where the neural action is when we make mental attributions to others, then we should expect that area to look like nightfall in those who have specific deficits in this area (some on the autistic spectrum), and to see it blazing like glory if people are involved in tasks that indirectly involve those kinds of attributions (some kinds of moral attributions). And we might look to work in these areas to help remove the confounding of distinct mental functions that has pervaded localization work driven by relatively new imaging techniques over the last 20 years.
Saxe’s ongoing work has thus at least raised questions of the place of the TPJ in the study of autism, and she has pursued this into moral cognition, where she has done fMRI monitoring of brain activity when folks engage in the sort of moral reasoning that one finds in classic trolley problems in moral philosophy. This is the kind of work that experimental philosophers would like to do, but so far the only magnets they’ll let philosophers have access to, except as subjects, are ones they can put in their pockets.