Mind Reading

Every night before turning out the lights, I read something. Usually it’s a short story or a chapter in a novel. Right now, though, I’m working through two non-fiction books: the classic A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman and the more recent Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. Both humanize the science that describes how we experience of the world.

In A Natural History of the Senses we are treated to the poetry of our experience. Another book I read recently, Action in Perception by Alva Noë, puts it this way: perception isn’t something that happens to us; it’s something we do.

In Proust Was a Neuroscientist we are treated to the way in which artists have accurately portrays how we experience the world well in advance of the neuroscience that describes it. The work of artists such as Walt Whitman, George Elliot, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and, of course, Marcel Proust are examined for their insights in comparison to recent scientific discoveries.

To some, this might look too much like “Me too!” in which the poetry of Walt Whitman is supposed to have said the same thing as the science of Antonio Damasio about our body as the origin of our emotions. So why was Damasio’s work news? And since we now have Damasio, who needs Whitman? If you have the neuroscience, who needs the art?

There are two answers that are extremely important.

The first is that the science doesn’t illuminate the experience as you feel and think your way through it. The science is about people as objects. Its knowledge is about bodies, not your body. In other words, it’s only half the story. The science is fascinating (or perhaps not)—for example, that the brain structure called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your eyebrows, is used in making decisions, in particular moral judgments.

To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, fascinating though the science might be, how does it help us live better lives?

That brings me to the second answer to the question “If you’ve got science, who needs art?”

In Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health, we discuss in the context of consumption decisions the core capacity of humans for mind reading. I’m not talking about the Vegas lounge act variety—although it’s in the family. I’m talking about our ability to understand the intentions of others by such things as what they say, how they say it, what is “written on their face,” and what their body language is telling us. Of great interest is that the intention registers emotionally and eventually bubbles up into our awareness.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article that describes a new movement in literature departments. Some literary scholars have discovered how neuroscience sheds light on works of fiction and the act of reading. There’s one strand of this movement that uses neuroscience as a literary theory. The other, and to me more interesting strand uses neuroscience and literature to illuminate each other. At the core of this strand is an appreciation for our capacity to read minds as an essential aspect of how we learn and how we get on in the world. In other words, when we read we’re exercising our capacity for mind reading. And we all know that exercise is good for you.

Next week, Science magazine will publish an article about the effectiveness of social learning—that is, learning by observing others, which, of course, includes mind reading. The research demonstrates, in a small way, why learning what to do by observing and imitating others beats trial-and-error learning hands down. The most successful strategy in social learning is observation of others balanced with taking action based on what’s been learned. From other research we that social learning is impaired when mind reading is impaired.

Remember the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and its role in moral judgment? Last week, the journal Neuron published research on the effect of damage to this structure. There are two aspects of moral judgment that interested the researchers: first, judgment of another person’s intentions (that is, mind reading) and, second, judgment as to what actually happened. What the study found is that when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was incapacitated, so was the capacity for mind reading.

Next week, some of the same researchers will publish a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that looks at another area of the brain and its effect on moral judgment. The researchers found that disruption of this area of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction, just above and behind your right ear) also caused loss of the capacity for mind reading. The incapacitating method used is of interest: they exposed the area to a magnetic field applied just about where you’d hold a cell phone.

The principal message I want to leave you with is this: engagement with stories builds you capacity to read minds—the more complex the story, the more it builds your capacity. And that is why literature departments are essential for our health.