Prediction Empathy and Understanding the Mind of Others

As human beings we are automatically able to "read the mind" of another person, even without their telling us. This capacity is called "theory of mind" [55, 56]. Using current nonverbal gestures, context, and past experience, the brain makes a prediction as to the other person's feelings, motivations, beliefs, and intentions [57]. This allows us to better anticipate how they will interact with us and be able to make a plan for how we will react to them [56, 58]. We readily determine from someone's facial expression and posture whether they are happy, or angry, and whether they intend to lift their hands to greet us or to hit us, as we plan what our appropriate response should be. During conversation, as we listen, we plan our reply before the other person has even finished speaking.

Theory of mind has a developmental trajectory. A baby as young as 9 months old will point to an object when it intends for mother to look at it, and will look where mother points, because the baby recognizes what its mother intends [59]. When very young children "read another's mind" it is very egocentric [55, 56]. If a child wants to go out for a walk, when you put on your tennis shoes, the child will assume you want to go out for a walk. Not until the child is about 5-6 years old do they recognize that others may have mental agendas that differ from their own. All forms of psychoanalytic therapy rest on the maturation of this capacity. Some individuals completely lack theory of mind ability, most notably people who suffer from autism or Asperger's syndrome. It is proposed that patients with borderline personality disorder have impairments of theory of mind, which underlie their difficulty in affect regulation and in interpersonal relationships [60].

One brain system that contributes to theory of mind ability involves "action-observation" and is referred to as the mirror neuron system [61]. When we observe another individual performing a purposeful or goal-directed action, we immediately "know" their intention2. If an apple is sitting on the table, and a person reaches out to pick it up, an observer auto

2 Some behavior is random, but most of it is considered goal-directed, i.e., purposeful or intentional.

matically assumes they intend to eat the apple. Neuroimaging studies indicate that while observing another individual perform a goal-directed action, mirror neurons in the premotor area of the observer's brain3 become active, in the same way they would if the observer were performing that action. The premotor neurons in the observer's brain are linked to regions that generate the intentions behind goal-directed behaviors. It is presumed that we know what someone else intends, because the brain predicts that they have the same intention we would have if we were performing that same action [62].

Empathy, or the ability to feel the feelings of others, also relies on the mirror neuron system and predictions [63]. When we observe the nonverbal behaviors associated with human emotion, such as a person's facial expression, posture, or head position, mirror neurons in one's own brain become active, in the same way they would if we were performing those same nonverbal emotional behaviors. We know what they feel, because our brain predicts that they feel the way we would feel if we were moving our face and body in the same way. We essentially read the minds of others by predicting that others are like ourselves [59].

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  • melissa
    How to use predictions of ones feelings and predictions of others in empathy?
    11 months ago

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