Guest Post by Sandra Ackerman, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

“Don’t know much about history

Don’t know much biology. . .”

Lasana Harris, Ph.D.

Music from the West End Wine Bar in downtown Durham wafted up to the mezzanine where about 30 people gathered on Monday evening for a little light neuroscience.  In the first public lecture of this year’s Brain Awareness Week at Duke, Lasana Harris, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, introduced us to his research in a corner of the field where social psychology meets up with brain anatomy—and, despite the words of the popular song, history and biology also made it into the discussion.

Harris and his colleagues work on identifying the neural correlates of mental state inferences—in other words, the kinds of activity in your brain that allow you to think about what might be going on in someone else’s brain.

Functional MRI image of a person looking at images of others’ faces. (National Institutes of Health)

Through a combination of functional MRI scans and carefully delineated storytelling, the researchers have been able to map the two main areas of the brain most involved in inferring the mental state of another person.  These patterns of brain activity are instinctual, not learned — even very young children show evidence of the same patterns — and in normal life they take place with lightning speed, in tenths of a second.  Inferring the mental states of others is a brain exercise we perform dozens of times every day without ever being aware of it.  Truth to tell, most of us wouldn’t recognize a mental state inference if it were served up on a plate with a side of green beans.

And yet this pattern helps to shape so many of your interactions with the world — not just with other people but with pets, machines, or even corporations that skimp on customer service.  We’re so strongly inclined toward making these mental-state inferences that all too often we fall into the trap of treating some non-human entity as if it were a person.  Think of that the next time your computer freezes on you and you’re tempted to give it a swift smack in the monitor!