Theory of mind and empathy mental simulation

In the first chapter, Section 1.1.1, we noted that cognitive psychology posits cognitive states in order to explain and predict goal-directed, flexible behaviour. We went on to remark there and in Section 1.4 that folk psychology can be plausibly regarded in a similar light, as being a quasi- or proto-scientific theory used to explain and anticipate behaviour. The behavioural phenomena constitute the empirical basis of cognitive psychological and folk psychological theory: they are evidence for ascription of mental states, and they are what is predicted from such ascriptions.

The behaviour to which mental state ascriptions are relevant already has intentionality or meaning. This has been argued for and considered in various contexts in the first two chapters (e.g. Sections 1.2.2 and 2.5). It may be anticipated that this point bears directly on the issue of reliability of ascriptions of meaningful, mental states. Generally observers agree as to the occurrence or non-occurrence of motor acts, such as the lifting of an arm, or movement from one place to another. On the other hand, in the case of behavioural patterns extended through time and across varying circumstances, manifesting more or less apparent goals, and more or less apparent plasticity of means to ends, etc., it is less obvious that all observers will see the same. Insofar as the behavioural evidence includes intentionality, agreement between observers becomes less certain; there is more scope for interpretation. It can be said that attributions of intentionality involve subjectivity, and are thus not entirely objective. It should be noted that this subjectivity arises primarily from individual differences between observers, of a sort which leads to variation in the results of observation. Individual differences are typically on a continuum rather than in dichotomous categories. The implication is that the contrast between 'subjective' and 'objective' ways of knowing is wrongly conceived as a dichotomy, but is rather a matter of degree.

Relativity in ascriptions of intentionality is apparent even in the case of predicting the behaviour of artificially intelligent systems. As generally in the discussion of mind and meaning, many critical points do not turn on the mind/matter distinction, nor on the animate/inanimate distinction, but rather on the distinction between behaviour which is and behaviour which is not functional, rule-guided, mediated by information, etc. Consider the example of the chess-playing computer, used already in the first chapter (Section 1.2.2). In order to describe its moves in intentional terms we use observation by the senses no less than if we wish to describe just the movements of pieces from squares to squares. However, it is clear that something more is required for the use of intentional descriptions, namely, knowledge of the game. In the absence of such knowledge, descriptions and explanations from the Intentional Stance are unavailable. Someone who is ignorant of the game will be able to record the moves made, but not the logic behind them. In this case, attempts at prediction would remain at the purely 'behavioural' level, proceeding by induction from past observations, and typically this method would have little success, particularly as the game develops. Recognition of intentionality in sequences of moves, the attribution of strategy and the formulation of prediction on that basis, requires familiarity with the game, over and above the ability to see what (physical) movements are being made.

The question arises as to what is involved in knowledge of a game, or generally, any rule-guided, goal-directed activity. There are broadly speaking two kinds of answer, with a complicated and contentious relationship between them. One draws on the notion of theory. This epistemology has been the one used and applied through the essay so far. It is highly suited to cognitive science (Section 1.1.1), belongs clearly with post-empiricist epistemology (Section 1.3.1-2) and has generated much research in various areas of psychology (Section 3.1). The core of this epistemology is that attribution of intentionality involves a theory which posits intentional states of various kinds and contents, and interactions among such states and between them and stimuli and activity. There is, however, a different kind of epistemology of intentionality, which has less to do with using theory.

In the case of chess-playing, especially when the game develops beyond a certain stage, into positions so far unencountered, the ability to perceive strategies apparently depends increasingly on the ability to play the game oneself. The recognition of intentionality in the other's moves draws on one's own inclinations to adopt this or that strategy at a given stage in the game. It can be seen here, in this simple case, that something like 'empathy' is involved in the attribution of intentional states. Consider now the more complicated, psychological case. A particular kind of cognitive-affective state has characteristic causes and characteristic expressions in behaviour. An observer who knows the emotion in his or her own case may recognize it in another, and thereby form expectations concerning the other's behaviour. In contrast, the observer who is unfamiliar with the emotion in herself will at best be able to record the other's behaviour, and not the emotion as cause (or reason): the various expressions of the emotion will pass unnoticed, or will appear as unconnected phenomena, without underlying psychological unity. Expressions of grief, for example, would be ignored, or attributed, say, some to influenza, others to other stresses. In general, perception of intentional states and connections in the other person is facilitated by the perceiver's familiarity with such states and connections in his and her own case.

Theories of knowledge of mind in which a notion something like empathy plays a critical role have been proposed in the philosophical literature (Gordon 1986; Heal 1986; Ripstein 1987; Goldman 1989). This kind of epistemology was soon taken into developmental psychological theory (Harris 1989, and for recent discussion, e.g. Preston and de Waal 2002; see also below). It is however yet to appear in scientific clinical psychology. The idea that the therapist uses him or herself to understand (and anticipate) the patient is of course fundamental to psychoanalysis and its derivatives, but it can hardly be envisaged in the scientific paradigm of knowledge.

The recent formulations of the theory of empathy vary among themselves, and some explicitly use the term 'empathy' while others, particularly Gordon's (1986) relies more on the technical term 'mental simulation'. This epistemol-ogy has often been understood as being an alternative to the proposal that knowledge of mind is an exercise in theory. There are however various ways in which they can be regarded as complementary. One way of doing this is to regard empathy as involving a kind of thought-experiment, generating information that requires interpretation, by analogy with experiment and theory in science: mental simulations construed as thought-experiments would provide a fast, easy to perform means of experimenting with the causal relations among mental states and between mental states and tendencies to behaviour, and hence, along with observation of actual cases, can be part of the empirical basis of the theory of mind (Bolton 19951).

Empathy may involve using information about oneself as a way of trying to know another person. We ask, for example, 'What would I feel if I had just experienced such-and-such?', intending the answer to help in knowing what the other might be feeling given the experience in question. This is a natural description, but superficial. Behind it lies the epistemological point that empathic knowledge is originally subject-less, that is to say, is not about a (particular) subject at all. In an exercise of empathy or mental simulation we imagine it would be like in such-and-such a position. But a thought-experiment of this kind is not primarily a source of self-knowledge, though it can be used for this purpose. The theory of mind required to run the simulation has to include methodological assumptions covering the move from current results to predictions about other cases. The simplest such assumption uses the straight rule: it will be in other cases just as it is in the present one. More sophisticated rules take into account differences between cases, such as differences in spatio-visual perspective, in ways of expressing emotion, or in beliefs, etc. It is by all means tempting to describe the methodological assumption of the straight rule as being that the other is like the self, while the more complex rules allow for differences between oneself and others. This way of describing the assumption behind the straight rule, however, presupposes that the distinction between self and other is being made, and the point is that this distinction comes into operation only with the more complex rules, which allow for differences in perspective. The thought-experiments are not about mental states of the self as opposed to mental states of the other. They provide information that is so far subject-less. The information is primarily about intentional states and their (apparent) connectedness, but these are not yet states of the self as opposed to states of the other. Attribution of patterns of intentionality to the self as opposed to the other requires recognition of and allowances for features which distinguish the self from others, and vice versa. This is to say, self-knowledge is not the basis for knowledge of the other, but rather they share the same origins, and develop in parallel (see also Carpendale and Lewis 2003).

Rules are required to make predictions about other cases from any particular source of information. The rules become more sophisticated as they take into account relevant differences between the current case and others, but these differences are not correctly characterized in terms of differences between self and other. The first distinction to be drawn is between this present case and other cases. The 'other cases' by all means include other people, but they also, and equally, include myself in conditions other than those in the present case, for example, myself at different times, places, or with different relevant beliefs and goals, etc. The aim is to use the current observation or experiment to predict as accurately as possible what will or would happen in other cases. Accuracy will be achieved to the extent that the rules of inference become increasingly sensitive to differences in perspective, in the broadest sense. This increasing sensitivity plausibly involves increasing capacity or skill in imaginative manipulation of perspectives (visual, cognitive, emotional, etc.), in other words, increasing aptitude for mental simulations or thought-experiments. But it seems equally plausible to suppose that sensitivity to perspective depends on a theory, concerning at least the idea that perception and belief do indeed depend on perspective, as opposed to being determined just by reality as it appears (at present) to be. It would be reasonable to suppose, further, that these two capacities, for thought-experiments with perspectives, and for theory about perspectives, are inextricably linked.

These epistemological points can be applied to the question of what is involved in the child's acquisition of knowledge of mind. Some developmen-talists emphasize the child's increasing theoretical sophistication (e.g. Gopnik and Wellman 1992; Perner and Howes 1992), while proponents of the Simulation Theory emphasize the child's increasing understanding of the role of perspective (Harris 1992). An advantage of seeing the two epistemologies as complementary is that one does not have to chose between these two themes in psychological development, both of which are apparently major. Indeed, the implication of the line of argument proposed above is not just that these two kinds of maturation are compatible, but is more that they are inextricably interwoven. A particularly crucial development in the theory of mind, highlighted by proponents of the 'theory-theory', is towards the idea of mental states as true-or-false representations (e.g. Gopnik and Wellman 1992).

This important theoretical development is, however, intimately linked, as a matter of logic, to recognition of and facility with variation in perspective. The main point, to be discussed in more detail in the next section, is that the distinction between true and false cannot be made out on the basis of the present point of view alone, still less is it made out by comparing the present point of view with an absolute reality; rather it arises in comparison and contrast between perspectives. The distinction between true and false, as also between appearance and reality, depends on the power of discriminating between me-now/me-then and me(-now)/him(-now). In effect, what is required is discrimination between the current perspective and others, and this in turn requires that the current perspective is construed precisely as a perspective. Thus, what appear to be advances in theory, concerning true-or-false representation, or the difference between appearance and reality, intimately involve the idea of perspective, and hence plausibly both facilitate and are facilitated by experience and imaginative play with perspectives. The argument leads, once again, round and round: from theory to experience or experiment, back to theory, and so on.

The suggestion is that development in the theory of mind is interwoven with development of imaginative play with perspectives. It should be noted at this point that in children this imaginative play is most apparent indeed in play. The implication here is that children use play to improve their knowledge of mind, whether in theory or simulation (Leslie 1987; Harris 1989; Hobson 1990; Bekoff 1998).

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