Understanding someone else's consciousness is a myth

Published on August 03, 2018

Understanding someone else's consciousness is a myth

Original author: Robert Burton
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Even experts cannot predict outbreaks of violence or suicide. We probably just deceive ourselves, believing that we can look into the minds of other people.



- I do not understand how you perceive what I am telling you!
Overheard a family dispute over dinner.
After the mass execution, the neighbors are shocked and tell reporters that he was a good and kind person. Former classmates and colleagues describe him as a bomb, ready to explode. Experts link Trump's latest tirade with unbridled narcissism, early dementia, aggressive father, Machiavellian insight — or a person’s sincere desire to bring America back to greatness ... Show an example of any human behavior, and we’ll find him with five sound explanations. All this is based on the assumption that we can, with a sufficiently high degree of confidence, understand what is happening in the head of another person. Psychologists call this assumption a model of human psyche.(MPU; and also - the understanding of another's consciousness, the theory of intentions, the theory of consciousness, the theory of mind ...). It is believed that this opportunity to perceive the fact that other people have their own, separate consciousness, which contains potentially different opinions and beliefs, intentions and desires, is one of the exceptional cognitive abilities that distinguish us from other beings.

It is not surprising that we consider ourselves able to understand the mental state of other people and to predict their behavior. We love to analyze personality by nature, to impose restrictions on behavior, to admire and hate. With outstretched hands, we take on like-minded people and fight with the “white crows”. Reading the mind is a social glue that permeates virtually all of our daily interpersonal communication. Trying to understand whether a potential buyer of a pistol is prone to violence, a patient of a psychiatric clinic suicide, candidate presidents for truthful statements, we devote ourselves to the mercy of our judgments about other people.

The fate of democracy depends on our ability to perceive and accept different points of view - however, the almost universal absence of reasonable public debate suggests that we rarely do it. We blame people who have a different point of view for personal flaws, hidden bias, lack of education, cultural brainwashing, and many other flaws in the logic of “if they only knew.” But there is one more simple and frightening opportunity. What if we really are just not able to thoroughly understand what others have in mind?

To begin with, let's assume the impossible - that we can go beyond our consciousness and see how the MUF can work. A psychologist presents a child of two dolls - Sally, who has a basket, and Ann, who has a box. Sally puts a ball in her basket, and then leaves the room. Until Sally is back, Ann takes the ball from the basket, and hides it in her box. Sally returns to the room. After that, the child is asked a question: where will Sally search for the ball? By about four years old, most of the children begin to realize that Sally will look for him in her basket (where she left him), and not in Ann's box. This universal ability of children to go through various versionssuch a test, in the absence of abnormal brain development — for example, autism — is often used by cognitive scientists as irrefutable evidence that a person is able to recognize the thoughts of another person.

To understand this even deeper, in recent years, neuroscientists have come up with many alluring theories about how our brain is capable of such. The first promising mechanism was described in 1992, when Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues discoveredthat when rhesus monkeys try to get food, such as peanuts, they activate individual cells in the prefrontal motor cortex. The same cells are activated when the researcher tries to get peanuts - while the macaques are sure that this gesture was deliberately made, and that the experimenter plans to eat this nut. Since the same cells are activated both when initiating an action and when observing an action, they are dubbed “mirror neurons”; and the entire neural network is called the “mirror neuron system”.

Since macaques made a distinction between whether a gesture was intended to eat peanuts or play with them, the researchers said that the mirror neuron system was able to determine intent, and that monkeys were also able to understand someone else's mind. In the following decade, mirror neurons were hauntingly harassed as the neurological basis of empathy, complex social interactions, language evolution, and cultural development characteristic of modern humans. Behavioral neurologist Vileanur Subramanian Ramachandran even found it possible to assertthat “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA discovery did for biology. Armed with knowledge of these neurons, we get the basis for understanding a whole bunch of mysterious aspects of the human mind: empathy with “reading thoughts,” imitational training, and even the evolution of language. ”

As a result, more reasonable researchers have the upper handand skeptics have reduced the intensity of over-attributing amazing properties to these neurons. Marco Jacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, a pioneer in working with mirror neurons, said that the system worked at a basic level of recognizing simple intentions and actions — about how we could work in a high-stakes poker game. You are going to make a bet, and suddenly notice that the player on the left is preparing to push his stack of chips. He can make this gesture specifically to distract you from some aspect of the game. Perhaps he is trying to distract you from his secret partner, the player to the right. He may be trying to imitate a clue, a characteristic behavior that betrays the intention or value of the cards in the player's hands in order to use it against you in the future. The same states of mind can lead to the same movement. Understanding that your opponent will soon move your chips forward does not tell you anything about the goal leading to this movement.

But this did not stop scientists from trying to prove the viability of the theory of reason. After the collapse of the mirror neutron theory, other parts of the brain took their place. In his terribly popular lecture at the 2009 TED conference, cognitiveist Rebecca Sachs from MIT claims that the right temporo-parietal node (PWEU), the brain area immediately behind the right ear, is “almost completely specialized. He doesn’t practice anything other than thinking about other people's thoughts. Differences in this part of the brain can explain differences in how adults can think of and judge other people. ”

But we also know that the Technical University controls the incoming signals of the senses, creating a stable physical sense of the self in the outside world.Transcranial magnetic stimulation can disrupt the functioning of the VTRU and cause the classic sensations of escaping from one’s own body. Damage to this area by a stroke or tumor can lead to a violation of self-awareness and recognition, or paralysis. Despite this, according to Jeanne Disti, a cognitive scholar from the University of Chicago, a properly functioning vocational school is necessary for us to distinguish ourselves from other people.

This is a rather strange vicious circle: we require from the same brain area both to create a consistent sense of our personality, and to go beyond this frame of reference in order to get a fresh, unbiased look at the thoughts of others. Some kind of contradiction to the basics of psychology.

Despite the inadequacy of these leading explanations of the MUF in neuroscience, it is still difficult for us to give up the belief that we can look into the mind of another person. Saks begins his lecture at TED with the question: “Why is it so easy for us to know the thoughts of another person?” To illustrate this thought, she shows two photos. At first, a mother gazing at her little child; on the second, a teenager jumping from a high cliff into the ocean. “You practically do not need any information, only one photo of a stranger to guess what this mother or this young man is thinking about.”

I look at my mother and see a combination of love and awe. But after thinking for a minute, I understand that I just collected some general assumptions about what unites people, and put them in her mind. I can't find out if she worries about the fact that his father may feel deprived because of her undivided attention to the child, whether he is thinking about when he can be sent to kindergarten, or trying to remember this feeling of unconditional love, which she suspects will be put to the test after her baby turns into a rebellious teenager. Using innate and acquired ideas about human nature, I can imagine her thoughts in a general and universal case, but not in particulars.

A photo of a boy jumping from a cliff also raises questions. Since I have not met the scientific literature on the mental state of diving from the rocks, instead of it I use the study of the most famous rock-climber, Alex Honnold . See how Honnold climbs the vertical wall of the yosemite peak 900 meters high without any insurance - without ropes, nets and belts. Ask yourself: Is Honnold very anxious and fearful when he looks at the land of Yosemite, located hundreds of meters below - or moderate? Or not at all? Ask yourself how confident you are in the answer, and how you will know if it is correct.

In 2016, neuroscientist Jane Joseph from the Medical University of South Carolina comparedHonnold's brain with the brain of another experienced climber. They were in the fMRI scanner when they were shown a sequence of 200 photographs of supposedly troubling — burnt and deformed corpses, dead victims of accidents, perilous mountain routes. The control climber showed a high level of activity of the amygdala - a part of the brain usually activated during moments of fear and anxiety. Joseph reported that Honnold's amygdala, on the contrary, remained completely silent. When asked about the photos, Honnold was surprised. “I can’t say for sure, but I took them absolutely indifferently,” he said. Even the photographs of the "burnt children and all that" did not seem to him anything special. "It was like a museum of rarities."

Joseph believes that Honnold's fMRI demonstrates the absence of a normal primary hazard response, as if his fear switch was in the off position. Still, Honnold does not consider himself fearless. He may recall cases, both related to climbing and not related to him, which he considers scary.

And we come to the second problem - the layering of language on mental states. Honnold acts consciously, and carefully studies all routes of ascent. He readily admits that the fall will lead to death, and describes this prospect as terrible. It is impossible to say whether this fact represents a cognitive awareness of danger or a feeling of emotion. Given that Alex's amygdala does not work, his notion of “scary” is unlikely to coincide with the type of fear that other mortals experience when standing at the window of a skyscraper, not to mention the high cliff. Thoughts about what Honnold might have during solo ascents remind me of the question of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who does not have an answer: “How is it to be a bat?”

This is not to say that we have no idea what is happening in the head of another person. The brain is perfectly able to recognize patterns; we usually correctly assume that other people will feel sadness at the funeral, joy at the first birthday of the child and anger when they are pruned on the highway. Often we are right, considering that other people feel about the same as we do. Listen to people from the TED audience when they are shown photos of jumping from a cliff –– as if they themselves feel the fear that a jumper should be experiencing. But at the same time, if this amygdala does not work for this jumper, as well as for Honnold, this impression will be completely wrong. The unsolvable problem is that we try to imagine a mental state that we never had. It's like trying to imagine an orgasm,

Perhaps I am completely wrong, and my theoretical objections to the MUF are untenable. Probably, there is convincing evidence of the main idea of ​​the HRM - that we know the opinions, wishes and aspirations of another person.

Let's start with the simplest way to experimentally study the MUF - the definition of lies. If we read our thoughts well, we can certainly become wonderful lie detectors. But in a review from 2006 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology it was shown that test volunteers only slightly exceeded the statistical error, trying to determine whether the actor was lying or telling the truth (54%). A decade later, despite various attempts to improve lie recognition, Monitor on Psychology reportedthat “the ability of people to determine a lie does not exceed the accuracy of random guessing or tossing a coin. This discovery is true for all types of people — students, psychologists, judges, recruiters, and ministers of the law. ”

If we do not define falsehood well, perhaps we will be better able to cope with predicting cases of cruel behavior. In 1984, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that the ability of psychiatrists and psychologists to predict violence was greatly exaggerated. Even in the best case — when a person who already had such tendencies in several cases was fully evaluated — in predicting future violence, psychiatrists and psychologists were wrong twice as often as they were given the correct diagnosis. However, the article mentioned that new methodologies can improve the percentage of successful predictions.

Did not work. Thirty years later, a review article in The British Medical Journal concluded : “Even after 30 years of development, the view that violence, the risk of sexual harassment or criminal behavior can be predicted, and in most cases there is no reason to.” Although he was involved in creating a widely used tool for assessing the risk of violence, psychologist Stephen Hart from Simon Fraser University in Canada shares this pessimism. “There is no tool whose usefulness would be confirmed to identify potential shooters in schools or mass murderers. There are many cases in life in which our evidence base is inadequate, and this is one of them. ”

The same story with the prediction of suicide. According to two recent meta-analyzes: “Over the past 40 years, there has been no improvement in the accuracy of suicide risk assessment.” The British National Institute of Health and Caregiving does not recommend using “tools and scales for assessing the risk of suicide”.

All good theories predict anything. Sooner or later they find evidence. If the experts cannot tell us who will show violence, commit suicide, or lie, is it time to reconsider the existence of real, practical limitations of the theory of consciousness?

I mentioned disagreements about mirror neurons to emphasize the presence in the brain of several low-level processes that may seem to be high-level functions, but are not. I suspect that the Sally-Anne test and other MUF checks may turn out to be similar examples. Yes, we know that other people have consciousness, desires and intentions, which are probably different from ours. But putting yourself in the place of another person is far from being the same as feeling and thinking like another person. I may be able to take the place of Honnold, but I cannot crawl into his mind.

Creating this article, I myself reluctantly admit the evidence I gave myself. I can not get rid of the inner feeling that in the recognition of lies there is something more than has been investigated. On the other hand, as an avid poker player, I admit that I am not particularly good at recognizing a bluff, so I try to base my decisions on a sequence of players' bets. And I'm not alone. Given the failure of MUCH with predictions, psychologists are increasingly turning to big data instead of individual minds.

A research team led by Stefan Ludwig at the University of Westminster in London developed automated text processing software that analyzed more than 8,000 applications for awards based on company performance. They compared the program's ability to detect fraud in tenders against an independent investigation by company account managers. The program far surpassed professional accountants, reaching 70% accuracy. Researchers hope that their technique will eventually learn to detect fraud in everything: from visa applications to dating profiles.

Scientists from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee collected datain more than 5,000 patients with physical signs of self-inflicted damage or suicidal thinking. By collecting available impersonal health data, such as age, gender, zip code, medications, and previous diagnoses, and without direct interviews with patients, the program showed an accuracy of around 80-90% in predictions of suicide attempts over the next two years, and an accuracy of 92 % in predicting suicide attempts next week. Assessing the likelihood of suicide of 12,695 randomly selected patients admitted to hospital, and without a history of suicide attempts, the group was able to show even higher predictive accuracy. With such results, it is not surprising that Facebook has introduced its own AI system to identify users at high risk of suicide.

Disadvantages MUCH has long been part of public opinion - especially in the field of criticism of psychiatry. But we continue to insist that the problem lies in psychiatry and psychiatrists, and not in the very idea that we can recognize the feelings and thoughts of another person. For me, the last straw, the undisputed verdict of the MPH, was the recent political events - from the inability to assess nuclear intentions and Kim Jong-un's thoughts to the almost universal inability of political experts to recognize the restrained anger, fear and disgust that is in the future Trump supporters.

I must admit, doubts about the MUFs appeared at the very beginning of my neurobiologist’s career. A young woman from Jamaica strangled her 18-month-old daughter. When she was sent to a mental hospital in San Francisco’s main hospital, she attacked a moaning woman with dementia confined to a wheelchair and broke her neck before the guards could intervene. A court-appointed psychiatrist wanted to know if this cruel behavior had a neurological basis.

This woman turned out to be completely different from what I had imagined when reading her medical history. She had a bright smile, she laughed easily and had a melodic accent, so she very easily disposed to herself. I could not imagine that she harmed someone, let alone her own child. As expected, the hourly study did not give any hint at the reasons for her behavior. Before leaving, I gathered my strength and asked her if she knew why she had strangled her own daughter and attacked the old woman.

For a long time she sat motionless. Then she blurted out: "I hate the sound of crying." She folded her palms on her hip and looked at me, shaking her head. Both of us were speechless, realizing the insuperable distance between us. I was amazed to understand that any motive that I would attribute to this woman would be pure fiction, a story I would invent to give some meaning to the inexplicable.

And this was not an isolated case. In my work, I was often confused enough to admit how little access I have to the principles of the work of someone else's mind. When one patient died from a mysterious disease, I asked his 30-year-old son for permission to open him. He agreed on condition that he would be allowed to look. When I asked him why, he said: "This is my father."

A middle-aged woman fainted at night. Computed tomography showed massive bleeding in the brain, which would definitely lead to death in a few hours. When I told her husband about this, he blinked a couple of times without showing any emotion: “Ok. I will probably go home and take a shower. ”

But the most vivid demonstration of the limitations of the HRM occurred during the psychiatric part of my neuroscience exam for certification. My trial patient was an unclean man who smelled of mold.

- How long have you been in the hospital? - I began the interview.
- Three months.
I was surprised that he was not put in order, and asked again.

- A couple of years, plus or minus. It's hard to keep track of the time when nothing happens.
- Could you please clarify?
- If you insist, I would say that, most likely, I have been here for three days.
- Do you have a history of mental illness?
- And who does not have it?
“Other family members?”
- Depends on point of view.
- Do you know why you are here?
- Not. And you?
- Yes. You are my trial patient of the psychiatric part of my neuroscience exam for a certificate. It would really help me if you answered the questions directly.
- You will not answer personal questions directly. First, learn to answer yes, no, I do not know, but on the other hand. You never know when they will ask you to nominate a candidate for the presidential race.

And so it went on for 30 minutes of agonizing head shaking, wiggling and stooping, while the psychiatrist evaluating me took notes, and then announced that the time was over. He allowed the patient to leave.

- Well, - asked the examiner. - What do you think?
- I have no idea. The patient is completely unreliable.
- You probably have suspicions.
- Not particularly. I can’t even tell if he has mocked me.
- If the successful completion of the exam depended on the diagnosis, what would you say?
- Sorry, that would just be a guess.
“You are free,” said the psychiatrist, with an absent facial expression, which I could not interpret.

After the exam, I met a psychiatrist by chance. He smiled at me. "Not bad - you did a great job."
- kidding me? I was sure I had failed psychiatry.
He laughed.
- So what's up with him? - I asked.
- Who knows? We have one of the best, we use it for many exams in this part of the country.
- Is he a professional patient?
- Not really. Before that, he was placed in a hospital, although no one could say with certainty what was wrong with him. While in the hospital, he showed an amazing ability to imitate a large part of mental illness. This time we asked him to play an unreliable patient who refused to cooperate.
“So does he have any mental illness?”
The examiner shrugged and smiled.
- Successfully you fly home.

I decided that tragedy can cause reactions, in other situations unimaginable. It is hardly possible to call it reading thoughts. In order to take a different look at the world, a rare talent is needed that requires great imagination: Hamlet, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are not artistic unique people based on deep understanding, but only certain stories that we cheat on the aspirations and motivations of others. We make up stories about our spouses, children, leaders and enemies. Inspiring stories help us survive dark nights and difficult times, but predictions based on impersonal big data will always be better for us than on the basis of misconceptions about the ability to read the thoughts of another person.