Tuesday, May 4, 2010

(Goldman's) Low-Level and High-Level Simulational Mindreading, and (My) Pedagogical Simulational Mindreading

This morning I finished Alvin Goldman's Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading. In terms of how it substantiates and contributes to much of my own thinking, it is by far one of the most important books I've read lately.

He is arguing that the human mind attributes mental states to other people (mindreading) primarily by simulating other people's thoughts in their own minds. Simulation, however, is buttressed by tacit psychological theory, and human reasoning capabilities. Goldman's theory of mind, therefore, is a simulation-theory hybrid (with heavy emphasis on simulation as the most basic, fundamental, and important).

Goldman distinguishes between two forms of simulational mindreading: low-level and high-level.

Low-level simulational mindreading is defined by two interchangable terms resonance or mirroring. Low-level mindreading heavily relies on a group of neurons known as mirror neurons. When we see someone experience pain, see someone making a sad face, or grasping an object, are brain activates its centers responsible for pain, sad facial muscles, and grasping. Mirror neurons literally resonate with what we perceive in other people. This is an instantaneous and often subconscious process, but neuroscience testing confirms the functioning of mirror neurons. So, low-level mindreading involves the simulation of other people's thoughts and feelings on the subconscious level of resonance and mirroring.

High-level simulational mindreading, on the other hand, is a more conscious process that involves taking the perspective of others, or the use of the enactment-imagination. Most of high-level mindreading rests on what Goldman calls the enactment-imagination (E-imagination). The E-imagination is a form of imagination in which we actually feel (to a quasi, but substantial degree) what we are imagining. We imagine being on a beach and we can sorta hear water, or feel the ocean. We imagine being in pain and our body may twinge with the idea of it. Goldman holds that when we imagine pain, happiness, sadness, or fear, we produce within our minds a state of quasi-pain, quasi-happiness, quasi-sadness, and quasi-fear. It is a form of imagination that invokes the actual qualities of experience. In many instances there is actually significant neurological overlap between imagination and experience.

High-level mindreading is utilized when we have more complex interpersonal behavior to make sense of us. When we are upset how someone has treated us, or when we are trying to figure out unusual or disconcerting behavior, we often use imaginative simulated scenarios to attribute possible mental states to individuals. High-level mindreading is also involved in imagining future hypothetical scenarios, or when actively remembering a certain incident. I can say for myself (and I hope others also do this, I know some who do) that I regularly reenact hypothetical social situations when I am either about to enter one, or if I have recently had a memorable one. In both cases I use my imagination to simulate possible scenarios. I run through imagined conversations, I think of potential replies. Or in the case of memory, I think of what I should have said, and I imagine myself saying it. A fairly common thing, I think. In all of these instances, the E-imagination would be invoking the approximate effects of experience.

I find Goldman's distinction between low and high-level mindreading to be extremely useful. In particular, I am interested in how high-level mindreading can be used to provoke the effects of actual experience, creating a 'synthetic experience.' In terms of effects, I am particularly interested in experience's ability to improve intuitive decision making, and to cultivate social sensitivity. I believe that if equipped with the conceptual tools of simulation and synthetic experience studying history and fiction would be a way to generate a wide range of synthetic experience that would be able to improve judgment and sensitivity.

This is what I want to discuss under my own category of 'pedagogical simulational mindreading.' I think this phrase captures my meaning really well, and it builds on Goldman's work, which is what I will be interested in doing in graduate school. So I really think/hope that I will be working with this concept/phrase for some time. Tough to predict my future thoughts, but at this point I like it a lot.

Anyways, so pedagogical simulational mindreading is the idea is that specific forms of simulation, conceptualized as such, when directly applied in an educational setting, could provide many forms of synthetic experience that would cultivate social sensitivity and intuitive judgment. This applies to the bulk of the humanities. In particular, I am going to discuss historical, fictitious, and philosophical simulation.

I am only going to run through these three forms very quickly. I have already explicated them in my post of april 30th, and will likely explicate them in much greater detail in the future. So a few sentences for each will suffice now.

Historical simulation, as I see it, is inspired by Clausewitz, Collingwood, and Foucault, probably others that I don't know of yet. But the basic idea is that historical knowledge is achieved by rethinking the thoughts that others have expressed in the past. So historians collect evidence of past thought that was expressed, then they simulate or reenact those thoughts in their own minds. Not only does this lead to historical understanding, but it provides a synthetic experience. And if reflected on, this synthetic historical experience can invoke the actual effects of experience (i.e. increased sensitivity and judgment). History, in particular, gives us access to a wide range of emotions and situations to draw synthetic experience from. When we use Goldman's E-imagination in historical study, we get close to actual experience.

History, however, cannot enter the same realms as fiction. Fiction is capable of depicting things, experiences, emotions, that never occurred in actuality. There is some freedom to this. It opens up uses of the E-imagination that are intense and fantastic. Surrealist literature (a la Steve Erickson), for example, has made me feel some of the most intense feelings, despite that it is completely impossible. The E-imagination can bring fictitious experiences to life, and provide a useful form of synthetic experience that differs from synthetic historical experience.

Philosophical reading would also provide a specific form of synthetic experience. While history and fiction are more likely to fall under the umbrella of emotional experience, philosophy provides more of an intellectual synthetic experience. When we read works of philosophy we are imagining why the person wrote the way they did, what questions they were trying to answer, why they thought their answers were good. So, we are gaining access to forms of thought (experience) that we never accessed before.

One quick experimental example. In Mirroring People Marco Iacoboni cites an experiment in which groups of individuals were told to imagine a very intelligent professor they knew, and to write down everything that came to mind as if they were that professor. Another group was told to imagine a group of soccer hooligans, and to write. After the imagining of other people they were given a general intelligence test. Those imagining professors mind's performed better. The moral: imagining intelligent people makes you more intelligent. This finding applies to all three of these types of pedagogical simulational mindreading. But it seems most specifically applied to philosophical simulation.

Goldman's distinction between low and high-level simulational mindreading seems extremely useful for me. I can build on the notion of high-level simulational mindreading, and in particular the idea of the E-imagination, to espouse my own views on 'pedagogical simulational mindreading.' I think this is a new phrase, I think this is a new idea. I want to reconfigure the educational systems using these ideas. Experience is the most important aspect of learning. The imagination can provide something like synthetic experience. And it turns out the humanities as a whole is fraught with different forms of synthetic experience that can be invoked to produce different effects. Booya.

But anyways, this is such impossible thinking. It seems impossible to change the way things are, or to implement these ideas on some meaningful level. I guess I'll see what happens before I die.

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