Rebecca Saxe at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 5

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Unedited running notes from TEDGlobal 2009.

Rebecca Saxe talked about “the problem of other minds.” One of the most complicated things the mind does is try to comprehend what other people are thinking. But the problem she researches is not what you might think — not “why is it so hard to know other minds?” but: How is it so easy to know other minds?

One snapshot of a stranger diving into the ocean or holding a baby allows you to guess what other people are thinking or feeling — joy, or thrill. The brain, the machine we use to think, is made of the same pieces as other animals’ brains are made of, and even sea slugs have them. But how is it that the particular network of pieces we humans in particular have allows us to think about other peoples’ thoughts so easily?

We have a special reasoning module called the right tempero-parietal junction that is what we use to think about other peoples’ thoughts.

How do we learn to predict actions? It takes time for human children to learn this ability. 5-year-olds can understand that other people have false beliefs. 3-year-olds don’t understand this. The same goes for the ability to make moral judgment based on what is (or is not) known about peoples’ intentions.

But even in adulthood, people differ on this ability. Saxe tries to explain how these differences come about with fascinating experiments. Adults are given a version of the experiment given to the kids, involving a jar of sugar that is labeled “poison.” People disagree about how much blame people should get when they do something intentionally wrong — givng a co-worker sugar, but believing that the sugar is poison — and doing something by accident — giving people poison that they think is sugar — that is wrong.

Saxe wanted to know if we can change this function, and it turns out that we can. We can do so using a magnetic pulse to disorganize the function of the neurons in the region responsible for this type of thinking. The magnetic pulse, which is powerful enough to shoot a quarter into the air, causes an involuntary twitch in the hand when applied through the skull. When this pulse is applied to people who are making a moral judgment, people come to believe that accidents are less OK, and actions done with actual intent to harm is more OK.

In a brief Q&A, Chris Anderson asked about the dangers of such technology. Is Saxe talking to the Pentagon about this technology? Saxe said, “They’re calling, but I’m not talking to them.” It’s not any danger (yet), because there’s no way for this technology to work without the person knowing that the brain interference is happening.

Will this research make any impacts on education? Saxe says that is the hope. By exploring this field, we’ll understand how human brains do distinctly human things.

Photo: Rebecca Saxe at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 5: ” Hidden algorithm,” July 22, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson