TED Weekends investigates why we judge others

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Rebecca Saxe speaks at TEDGlobal 2009. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Above and slightly behind your right ear, exists a part of your brain many scientists believe is specifically dedicated to thinking about other people’s thoughts – to predicting them, reading them, and empathizing with them. It’s called the temporoparietal junction, and this is the area cognitive neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe focuses on in her research.

Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other's minds Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other's minds At TEDGlobal 2009, Saxe delves into our amazing capacity to identify and predict others’ emotions and actions, and how this ability is learned throughout childhood. This skill serves an important function in human relationships – we learn how to fill in the unspoken blanks between what someone is thinking and how they are presenting themselves. This is what allows us to glance at a photo of someone and be able to know what she is feeling.

Saxe’s talk is this week’s featured idea for TED Weekends on the Huffington Post. Below, find essays all about our ability to, in a sense, read minds.

Rebecca Saxe: Learning to Read Someone Else’s Mind

My TED Talk, 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. Read the full essay »

Phillip M. Miner: The Neurology of Disgust

Growing up believing you are an abomination is strange. But, if you are gay and grew up in Kansas (or many other parts of the world) — like I did — it’s not all that uncommon. We’re told from a very young age that being gay is wrong and gross. The lesson that men who have sex with men are disgusting is repeated so frequently, your average kid quickly gets the message.

Sometimes the moral judgment is delivered directly — often times through someone with religious moral authority or family. Other times it comes more subtly through language cues. In my experience, the euphemisms for men who have sex with men seem to bleed together to form a powerful and often false identity, saying all men who have sex with men are feminine (“pansy”, “fairy”, “poof”), perverts (“pillow biter,” “corn holer,” “sword swallower”), and abominations (“queer,” “bent”).

There’s disagreement on the physical mechanisms for creating moral beliefs in the brain. Read the full essay»

Barbara Ficarra: Equipped for Empathy

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” These are heartfelt words by award-winning actress Meryl Streep.

Do we all have the power of empathy? Are we hardwired to know what other people want? Is it easy to think about other people’s thoughts?

Rebecca Saxe’s enlightening TEDTalk “How To Read Each Other’s Minds” asks: “Why is it so hard to know what somebody else wants or believes?” “Why is it so hard to change what somebody else wants or believes?” And “How is it so easy to know other minds?” Read the full essay »