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Representational preconditions for understanding other minds in the service of human collaboration and social learning

Final Report Summary - REPCOLLAB (Representational preconditions for understanding other minds in the service of human collaboration and social learning)

What are the origins of our social nature? In our everyday life humans navigate in a complex social word and despite its intricacies, even young children seem to deal with this challenge with an incredible ease. Remarkably, humans can attribute to another person any possible goal or belief they themselves can entertain, starting from the simplest ones, like assuming that two persons accidentally colliding in the morning rush presumably did not notice each other, to more complex ones, such as religious, moral or political beliefs that can be different from one’s own. How do we manage to take into account what other’s see, know or believe in our everyday interactions, and how do young children develop the understanding that people’s behavior is not only guided by the actual events in their environment, but also by their goals, desires and beliefs? The central aim of the REPCOLLAB project was to investigate the basic cognitive mechanisms and the underlying neural processes that allow for successful social interaction and are crucial for the human social mind.
In different series of studies we systematically explored the representational preconditions and the functional structure of the mechanisms dedicated for understanding other minds (Kovacs, 2016). We have found that human infants and adults show a special sensitivity to situations involving different perspectives (Freundlieb et al, 2015, 2017, 2018) or beliefs of other agents regarding the location of the identity of an object in their environment, as suggested by their behavioral responses (e.g. looking time, scanning patterns and searching behavior in infants (Kampis & Kovacs, in subm); reaction times, scanning patterns in adults (Fogd et al, in prep), and neurophysiological indices (Kampis et al, 2015, 2016). Our results indicate that while infants seem to display powerful abilities for tracking other agents’ representations in false belief and pretend play situations, the ability to bind a belief to the respective agent (Kovacs et al in subm), and to rely on it in communicative situations seems to show a specific developmental pattern (Mascaro & Kovacs, in rev). Additionally, while infants can proficiently preform online or prospective belief tracking, and disambiguate a person’s communicative intent accordingly, their post hoc or retrospective belief computation abilities seem to be limited by factors related to episodic memory (Kiraly et al, 2018).
Furthermore, we have found that spontaneous belief tracking in adults might be more efficient for beliefs about the presence, than the absence of objects, and it relies on the same brain networks that are also recruited for explicit deliberations regarding another person’s mental states (Kovacs et al, 2014). Young children seem to be able to deal proficiently with abstract representations in first person reasoning (such as representing absence, negating presence), and the roots of such ability seem to be present also in nonhuman animals (Szabo et al, in subm), however, third person reasoning involving such representations might be a uniquely human ability that is triggered by social environment also possibly enriching first person representations.
Our results together suggest that we should abandon an “all or none” view on how humans attribute mental states to other people, and instead investigate its possible component mechanisms and the underlying cognitive architecture. Research targeting questions along these lines advances our understanding regarding the nature of the basic cognitive and brain mechanism that allow humans from early infancy onwards to learn about and from others, predict their behavior and to successfully communicate and collaborate with each other.