Monday, November 7, 2016

I think Sally is voting for Trump

The election tomorrow culminates a season of expletives. Prominent amongst them is the, usually exasperated, rhetorical question: “How could you think that?” This suggests more than a simple belief that large sections of the voting public are simply wrong; it suggests that there is a new way of thinking (or not thinking), and that this mystery process is incomprehensible to many who do not practice it.

Understanding how someone could think something is not mind reading. It is instead a form of empathy. It is putting one’s self into another’s metaphorical shoes and “walking a mile in them” or “trying them on for size” to understand how some particular thoughts are possible. This incredibly complex task sounds casually obvious as it is one of the more profound ways the mind works.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) suggested that all development was a process of increasing layers of internalization, and we have discovered a class of neurons (mirror neurons) that facilitate subtle learning by firing during the process of mimicking the activity of another human being. The process of becoming like others in order to understand and learn from them has also been described and mapped.

The specific activity of recognizing another person’s point of view by internalizing it is called “theory of mind” (TOM) or, more pedantically “Theory-theory of mind”. Far from being a pre-loaded activity for the brain TOM develops at a particular developmental stage in a child’s life. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4 a child changes their responses to a series of “false belief” tests. The easiest way to correct the false belief test response is to begin viewing the potential answer from another person’s point of view; to develop a recognition that a different person would see things differently from one’s self. Let me describe the two most famous false belief tests to help illuminate what I am trying to say here.

The first test is called the “Sally-Anne” test. There are several variations, but all of them involve a story where one actor “Anne” creates compartmentalized information that is unknown to the other actor “Sally”. It usually goes something like this: Sally and Anne are in a room with two boxes and a toy and Sally puts a toy in box one, then Sally leaves the room and Anne moves the toy to box two. Sally does not see Anne move the toy, but you do. Where does Sally look for the toy when she comes back into the room? Almost all children close to their third birthday will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box two, and will look there first; shortly after their fourth birthday almost all children will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box one, and will look there first.
The original Sally-Anne illustration by Uta Frith
From "Does the autistic child have theory of mind"
Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) Cognition 21;37-46

For the second common test (The “Unexpected contents” test) the child is presented a container with some sort of known visual clue affixed to it. The classic example is a cookie jar of the type the child has experience retrieving cookies from. The child is asked what they think is in the jar, and sometimes asked what some other child thinks is in the jar. The answer is universally: “cookies”. The jar is then opened to reveal that it does not contain cookies; it contains something else the child recognizes, like pencils or crayons. The jar is closed again and the child is asked what they had previously thought was in the jar: “what did you think was in the jar before I opened it?” The answer for three year olds is almost universally “crayons” (or pencils or whatever the child now knows is actually in the jar). When asked what other children might think is in the jar the answer is almost universally “crayons” as well. Sometime after their fourth birthday children will be able to recognize that people can believe stuff that is not true, and the children will answer “cookies”.

This is not simply because children are not exposed to simple false belief situations before their fourth birthday. There are map-able regions of the brain that must develop this TOM functionality in order to internalize the experiential information. The superior temporal gyrus (STS), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the precuneus, and the amygdala are all thought to be critical to TOM development. In other words effective TOM relies on a bunch of cognitive stuff (STS, TPJ, MPFC, and the precuneus) and the lizard brain (amygdala).

On first blush those uninitiated into the sacred rites of developmental psychology, like myself, are struck by the irony of so much of TOM development conclusions being based on answers to the question “what is going on in a child’s mind before they develop theory of mind?”. In addition to being delightfully ironic this question critically analyzes such things as what the child actually thinks is being asked in the Sally-Anne test.

TOM is a factor in abnormal brain function as well a critical element of a normal development. Severe alcoholics can, apparently, leverage the neurotoxicity of ethanol to drink themselves out of the capacity to recognize that other people can have a point of view. Many diseases on the autism spectrum reduce or eliminate TOM. Depression and dysphoria can also cause a reduction in TOM.

Depression, dysphoria, and stress cause measurable changes in the amygdala. This current campaign cycle has relied heavily on free-floating anxiety as a critical campaign issue. Certainly those internalizing the liberally slung rhetoric have amydalas that are all out of whack, and this should have an effect on TOM. Because TOM is evolutionarily tied to the ability to create social structure, or culture, or societies, then there must be some sort of synergistic effect on whole groups of people.

I know that when I try and understand what close to half of the voters in the USA are trying to think I come away with strange versions of the Sally-Anne test question.

“If Dick Cheney moves Obama’s birth certificate from an undisclosed black base to Hillary’s email server, while chemtrails are seen over Afghanistan, then what really happened to World Trade Center 7?”

And, unfortunately, the answer many people are coming up with is: “Vote for Trump”.

It may be necessary, for the continuance of our culture, to distribute some sort of psychological brannock device on Wednesday.


kzin99 said...


only definition I'm seeing is a Scottish bread.

adult onset atheist said...

Typo, now fixed. I meant Brannock device. I was alluding to a more objective way of determining information about someone else 's shoes tying it to the idiom often used to describe TOM; namely "Put yourself in someone's shoes".