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Study identifies brain circuits enabling four-year-olds to “put themselves in other people’s shoes”

Thanks to a crit­i­cal fibre con­nec­tion in the brain (green), four-year-old kids can start to under­stand what oth­er peo­ple think. Cour­tesy of Max Planck Insti­tute.

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A remark­able mile­stone occurs in chil­dren around their fourth birth­days: They learn that oth­er peo­ple can have dif­fer­ent thoughts than they do. A recent study is the first to exam­ine the spe­cif­ic brain changes asso­ci­at­ed with this devel­op­men­tal break­through. Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Training and Schizophrenia: How to Boost Social Cognitive Skills

Indi­vid­u­als suf­fer­ing from schiz­o­phre­nia show social cog­ni­tive deficits, that is dif­fi­cul­ties in per­ceiv­ing and under­stand­ing the social world. Research shows that schiz­o­phre­nia is accom­pa­nied by social cog­ni­tion prob­lems such as prob­lems iden­ti­fy­ing facial expres­sions, under­stand­ing and respond­ing to social cues (e.g., body lan­guage), under­stand­ing that oth­ers have dif­fer­ent men­tal states and thoughts than one­self (also called The­o­ry of mind). These deficits are usu­al­ly per­sis­tent over time and resist phar­ma­co­log­i­cal treat­ment. Inter­est­ing­ly, social cog­ni­tion may be train­able. This recent arti­cle reviews the research and shows that social cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams :

  • pro­duce a mod­er­ate to large improve­ment in the recog­ni­tion of facial emo­tions
  • pro­duce a small­er improve­ment in The­o­ry of mind
  • do not improve social per­cep­tion (such as under­stand­ing voice into­na­tion or body lan­guage) Read the rest of this entry »

Changing our Minds…by Reading Fiction

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

Chang­ing our Minds

By imag­in­ing many pos­si­ble worlds, argues nov­el­ist and psy­chol­o­gist Kei­th Oat­ley, fic­tion helps us under­stand our­selves and oth­ers.

-By Kei­th Oat­ley

For more than two thou­sand years peo­ple have insist­ed that read­ing fic­tion is good for bookyou. Aris­to­tle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles, and Euripi­des, which we would now call fiction—is a more seri­ous busi­ness than his­to­ry. His­to­ry, he argued, tells us only what has hap­pened, where­as fic­tion tells us what can hap­pen, which can stretch our moral imag­i­na­tions and give us insights into our­selves and oth­er peo­ple. This is a strong argu­ment for schools to con­tin­ue to focus on the lit­er­ary arts, not just his­to­ry, sci­ence, and social stud­ies.

But is the idea of fic­tion being good for you mere­ly wish­ful think­ing? The mem­bers of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Dji­kic, Ray­mond Mar, and I—have been work­ing on the prob­lem. We have turned the idea into ques­tions. In what ways might read­ing fic­tion be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psy­cho­log­i­cal func­tion of art gen­er­al­ly?

Through a series of stud­ies, we have dis­cov­ered that fic­tion at its best isn’t just enjoy­able. It mea­sur­ably enhances our abil­i­ties to empathize with oth­er peo­ple and con­nect with some­thing larg­er than our­selves.

Pos­si­ble selves, pos­si­ble worlds

Peo­ple often think that a fic­tion is some­thing untrue, but this is wrong. The word derives from the Latin fin­gere, to make. As some­thing made, fic­tion is dif­fer­ent from some­thing dis­cov­ered, as in physics, or from some­thing that hap­pened, as in the news. But this does not mean it is false. Fic­tion is about pos­si­ble selves in pos­si­ble worlds.

In terms of 21st-cen­tu­ry psy­chol­o­gy, we might best see fic­tion as a kind of sim­u­la­tion: one that runs not on com­put­ers, but on minds. Such men­tal sim­u­la­tion unfolds on two lev­els.

The first lev­el involves sim­u­lat­ing the minds of oth­er peo­ple: imag­in­ing what they are think­ing and feel­ing, which devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists call “the­o­ry of mind.” The the­o­ry-of-mind sim­u­la­tion is like a watch, which is a small mod­el that sim­u­lates Read the rest of this entry »

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