The character of Hugh-Laurie from the series "House MD" somehowsaid: "the monkey sees, the monkey does." This is a very simplified view of how sensitive we are to others. In infancy, we observe our parents and teachers, they help us learn to walk, talk, read, use a computer and smartphone. There seems to be no limit to the complexity of behavior that we can learn by simply observing the actions of others. But scientists believe that social influence is much deeper - we do not just copy the behavior of the people around us, we copy their thoughts. As we get older, we understand what people think, feel and what others want and adapt to it. But how does the brain distinguish between thoughts of your own mind and thoughts of other people's minds?
How do we read minds
The human brain perfectly copies complexmental processes of other people. The results of a new study, which its authors write in their article for The Conversation, brings us closer to the answer to the question of how the brain distinguishes our thoughts about our own mind and the mind of others.
As scientists write in a paper published inNature Communications magazine, our ability to copy other people's thoughts is extremely important. When this process goes wrong, it can serve as a trigger for the development of mental illness. This means that at some point you can stop empathizing with others, or vice versa, you will be so susceptible to the thoughts of others that your perception of your own “I” will change. The ability to think about other people's thinking processes is one of the most complex adaptations of the human brain. Some psychologists evaluate this ability using a method called the “false belief task”.
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The task of false belief
Over the past ten years neuroscientistsstudied the theory of reading thoughts - the theory of simulation, according to which, when you put yourself in the place of a friend, your brain tries to copy the calculations inside its brain. But if your brain copies the calculations in your friend’s brain, then how does it distinguish your own thoughts and mind from simulating the thinking of others? It turned out that neuroscientists have found convincing evidence that the brain really mimics the calculations of a social partner. Studies have shown that if you watch another person receive a reward, such as food or money, your brain activity becomes the same as his.
During the study, scientists tested the experiment,in which 40 subjects took part. The authors of the work asked them to play a “probable version of a false belief”, while scanning their brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity. The game was as follows: instead of just believing that an object is in the box, both players believe that there are two probabilities - either the object is in the box or not (which practically makes it a Schrödinger cat thought experiment).
The object is constantly moving, and therefore beliefsboth players are constantly changing. Subjects are invited to try to track not only the location of the object, but also the partner’s beliefs about its location. By the way, did you know that the brain continues to work normally after removing one of the hemispheres? Details here.
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This design allowed researchersuse a mathematical model to describe what happened in the minds of the subjects when they played this game. The results showed that the participants in the experiment changed their own beliefs each time they received some information about where the object is. The experiment also showed that the subjects changed the imitation of the partner’s thinking, each time the partner saw any information. The model works by calculating “predictions” and “prediction errors”. For example, if a participant predicts that the object is in the box with a probability of 90%, but then sees that he is not next to the box, he will be surprised. That is why in such cases, scientists believe that a person experienced a "prediction error." The results are then used to further improve the forecast.
Have you encountered cognitive errors, and if so, which ones? We will wait for the answer here as well as in the comments to this article!
It should be noted that many scientists todaybelieve that prediction error is the fundamental unit of computation in the brain. Each prediction error is associated with a specific pattern of brain activity. This means that we can compare patterns of brain activity when a subject experiences prediction errors with alternative patterns of activity that arise when a subject thinks about partner prediction errors. The results of the study showed that the brain uses different patterns of activity for prediction errors and “simulated” prediction errors. This means that the activity of the brain contains information not only about what is happening in the world, but also about who thinks about the world. This combination leads to a subjective feeling of oneself as a person.
Cognitive distortion - These are systematic errors in thinking or template deviations that are easily detected when analyzing automatic thoughts.
How to train the brain?
It is noteworthy that the authors of the study alsofound that it’s possible to teach people how to make these patterns of brain activity for themselves and others either more distinct or more overlapping. During the experiment, scientists did just that, manipulating the task so that the test subject and partner saw the same information either rarely or often. If the information became more distinct, the subjects better distinguished their own thoughts from the thoughts of the partner. If the patterns overlapped, the subjects distinguished their own thoughts worse and worse from the thoughts of their partner.
This means that the border between the "I" and the "other" in the brain is flexible and it is able to learn how to change this border on its own. That is why two people who spend a lot of time together begin to feel like one person, sharing the same thoughts with each other. If the boundaries between themselves and others are reallyso malleable, then perhaps we can use this ability both to fight fanaticism and to treat depression and other mental disorders.