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My TEDTalk, above, is about the process by which we learn to read each other. Here are five reasons that I study how human brains think about other minds.
(1) It is a hard, and awesome, problem. To me, the most breathtaking idea I've ever heard is that each thought a person ever has, every moment of experience, of insight, of reflection, of aspiration, is equivalent to a pattern of brain cells firing in space and time. How does a pattern of brain activity constitute a moral judgment? A moment of empathy for a fictional character? The idea for a sentence you're about to write? Someday, scientists will be able to imagine, simultaneously, these abstract thoughts and how each corresponds to a specific pattern of brain activity. I don't expect this understanding to arrive in my lifetime. But it's thrilling to imagine that future, and to feel that my research might be a small step on the route that gets us there.
(2) It matters to society. Some of the hardest problems we face as humans are social problems: how to get a group of people to agree on a set of goals, and a path to achieving those goals, and in some cases a set of small individual compromises or sacrifices in the interest of the long term and the greater good. Fortunately, cooperating in large groups is a signature accomplishment of the human brain: among similar species, we are remarkably good at working together and negotiating our differences. On the other hand, there is still a long way to go, and a lot we don't know. Our current techniques for persuasion and coordination depend on our intuitions about how to inspire people to act. As an analogy, our human intuitions about physics are good enough to let us catch a baseball at 350 feet, but if NASA had used intuitive physics to get to the moon, the Eagle would have missed. I hope my research will be a step along the way toward a true theory of how people respond to other people, the theory that helps us to coordinate even more powerfully to get where we're going next.
(3) It might help treat disease. Many forms of developmental disorders and brain diseases disproportionately affect people's relationships with others. For example, some children with autism spectrum disorders are extremely intelligent, and can solve logical and mathematical problems that would stump other kids, but don't want to be hugged, don't like sharing experiences, don't respond to a smile. This disconnect can be devastating, especially for the children's caregivers. Another example is fronto-temporal dementia, a progressive brain disease somewhat like Alzheimer's, except that the first symptom is emotional callousness. Patients with this disease usually aren't aware of anything wrong at first; they come to the doctor at the insistence of their (often angry and deeply hurt) spouses. I hope that my research on the biology of social interaction might some day lead to better diagnosis, and better treatments, for these diseases.
(4) It keeps me busy. The problems I work on connect to so many other disciplines. The tools I use for taking images of people's brains depend on physics. The signal I measure depends on the biology of brain cell metabolism. The inferences I make from my data depend on neuroscience. My colleagues working on similar problems are developmental psychologists studying human children, comparative psychologists studying non-human primates, and social psychologists studying how people interact. I speak to audiences of philosophers, of economists, of lawyers and judges. Connecting to all of these different disciplines keeps me on my toes. There has never, in the 14 years I have worked on this topic, been a moment when I felt that I knew enough.
(5) Luck. In my first year in graduate school, I tried five experiments. Four failed. This research came from the one that worked.
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