Monday, March 14, 2011

You Know That God Knows That You Know

Great blog post by Jesse Bering at Scientific American. He reviews an experiment on children and "magical thinking."

Along with the somewhat surprising conclusion that 9 year-olds are more likely to assign supernatural significance to perceived events than 5 and 6 year-olds, comes an exploration of the theory of mind - an individual's model of what another person might be thinking. The cool bit is when the discussion turns to second-, third- and even seventh-order theories of mind:
For example, in the everyday (nonsupernatural) social domain, one would need this kind of mature theory of mind to reason in the following manner:
"Jakob thinks that Adrienne doesn’t know I stole the jewels."

Whereas a basic ("first-order") theory of mind allows even a young preschooler to understand the first propositional clause in this statement, "Jakob thinks that . . . ," it takes a somewhat more mature ("second-order") theory of mind to fully comprehend the entire social scenario: "Jakob thinks that [Adrienne doesn’t know] . . ."

Most people can’t go much beyond four orders of mental-state reasoning (consider the Machiavellian complexities of, say, Leo Tolstoy’s novels), but studies show that the absolute maximum in adults hovers around seven orders of mental state.

I personally find myself sinking fast as the orders of mind theory build. Rather than a illuminating a general failure of intelligence (other evidence may exist!), my occasional mental discomfort has a specific cause. Others with a more highly developed skill might even enjoy flexing their theory of mind muscles (Isaac Asimov comes to "mind").

There are such a myriad of mental skills that we practice each day. Encountering an explanation of a hitherto unexplored example brings that unique rush of "Ah ha!" and provides the high that helps a nerd get through the day.

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