Mindreading – Is It Really Possible?

Most of us read minds quite easily. Of course, I am not talking about true telepathy because we cannot directly access the content of someone else’s mind but we can readily infer what someone might be thinking given the circumstances of  the situation they are in. This allows us to understand their actions and predict what they might do next.

The classic demonstration of this mindreading that is taught to every psych undergraduate is the false belief task. For those of you who do not know, here is the scenario. Sally and Anne share an apartment. One day Sally comes home and places her hat in a bedroom drawer and then goes out. Meanwhile, Anne comes home, opens the bedroom drawer and decides to put Sally’s hat in the hall cupboard and then leaves. Now here is the crunch question. “When Sally comes home, where will she look for her hat?” Most children below the age of 3-4 years say that she will look in the cupboard. They fail to understand that Sally has a false belief. Older children understand that Sally holds a belief that just happens to be incorrect.

While most of us can easily pass the “Sally-Anne” task, unfortunately individuals with autism typically fail which has led to the conclusion that they suffer from “Mindlblindness” – an inability to infer the mental states of others. This  is thought to be one of the reasons that they find social interaction so distressing. Here is Alison Gopnik’s terrifying vision of what it must be like to have mindblindness at the dinner table,

“Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways…Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved towards you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.”

I know what you're thinking!

I know what you're thinking!

However, help might be on the way. Physicist Michio Kaku writes in his latest book, “Physics of the Impossible” about possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to read the mental states of individuals as they think. At the moment, these fMRI machine are huge magnets that weigh several tons and cost millions. Kaku writes about the development of technology that would make handheld scanners possible.

But can you interpret brain activity in terms of the mental states at the time of recording? We learn that a UCLA/Rutgers study to be published in Psychological Science in October reports that it is possible to determine from the basis of brain activity measure, which of eight tasks an individual is undertaking at the time of recording. Sounds great. Maybe mindreading will be possible. However, the authors are a bit more realistic than Michio Kaku. While they got an 80% hit rate for identifying which of one of eight mental tasks, including reading words aloud, saying whether pairs of words rhyme, counting the number of tones they heard, pressing buttons at certain cues and making monetary decisions, the reality is that these are very discrete tasks and there is no mention of how we could determine the content. In other words, we would not be able to know whether the person thought that Sally believed her hat was in the bedroom drawer or hall cupboard in the Sally Anne task for example. Also each person may have too much variation in how their brain processes events so without the full history of an individual’s thoughts and the corresponding neural activity, it would be impossible to read their mind.

Still, such reductionist approaches to complex mental states may produce technological advances that stimulate the next round of cognitive neuroscience. So, I am all for it so long as I don’t have to wear the scanner.


Filed under Research

3 responses to “Mindreading – Is It Really Possible?

  1. Your site has been a great inspiration and the knowledge gained has gotten me past the obstacle blocking my way.

  2. I am moved by the bags of skin example. What a terrifying image.

  3. Mark

    The bags-of-skin example seems a bit misleading to me. As far as I’m aware, people with autism recognise other humans as humans, and recognise their actions and words, but just aren’t able to predict what those actions and words will be. They don’t see people as some sort of unknown monster.

    Am I wrong?

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