How can we judge thinking

Neurobiology : How we judge the thinking of others

How do we know what another person is thinking? New research suggests that we use the same region of the brain that we access when we think about ourselves - but only as long as we think the person is similar to us.

When we assess the views and feelings of those who are not like us, this region of the brain is not involved, as the new research shows. That could mean that we are more likely to fall back on stereotypes - which in turn could help to explain the causes of social tensions such as racism or religious disputes.

Neuroscientists, led by Adrianna Jenkins of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made this discovery while studying how the brain weighs the thoughts of others. As Jenkins explains, assessing how others feel is an important social skill because we cannot look inside others' heads. "How do we bridge the gap between our minds and those of others?" She asks.

The answer seems to be whether or not we identify with the other person, says Jenkins. In other words, how our brain evaluates the attitudes of others - be it about traffic jams or impressionistic art - depends on how we feel about that person.

Similar taste

Jenkins and her colleagues studied a region of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which is involved in thinking about oneself. For example, when asked if you like baseball, this region of the brain works while you think about whether you like the sport or not.

To find out what happens when the views of others are weighed, the scientists showed college students in the Boston area photos and descriptions of similar or unlike people - either an equally liberal student from the Northeast or a Republican fundamentalist from the Midwest . Students were then asked to answer a series of questions, such as “Do you like mushrooms on your pizza?” And guess what the two fictional people would answer.

As the scientists report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1), the volunteers demonstrated activity of the vmPFC when considering the views of people like them. When weighing the pizza preferences of people who were not like them, this region of the brain did not come into play.

"The more you perceive the other person as being like you, the more you can feel for them," explains Jenkins. "We may see dissimilar people as less human," she suggests.

Social conflict

Even if the questions in the study were deliberately apolitical, the results shed light on social conflicts between groups that view each other as very different, says Jenkins.

Psychological theories suggest that another way to infer the feelings of others without referring to your own is to simply rely on social assumptions. This, Jenkins said, could be the source of religious or racial tension.

"It's pretty plausible that we use stereotypes for people who aren't like us," she says. "Whether that is useful or disadvantageous is an open question."

Jenkins and her team are now investigating this effect on people of different races. So far, they have been working with volunteers from "white" and oriental backgrounds - groups with a history of conflict, such as Israelis and Palestinians, could change results, she says.

Whatever the outcome of this research, there is hope that empathy can be generated with people who are different from us. Other research by the Jenkins team suggests that if you really try, you can empathize with other people by writing about them in first person for five minutes - which suggests that you can empathize with other people.

(1) Jenkins, A.C., Macrae, C.N. & Mitchell, J.P. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105: 4507-4512 (2007).

This article was first published on March 17, 2008 at [email protected] doi: 10.1038 / news.2008.677. Translation: Sonja Hinte. © 2007, Macmillan Publishers Ltd

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