Dissertation Year: Day 1 -- What I study
This is a blog series on my (hopefully) final graduate school year, detailing my dissertation project from beginning (ish) to end. I did this before with my first project in my graduate lab. Seems fitting to document perhaps my last project in my graduate lab, from start to finish.
My hopeful defense month will be in the Spring semester sometime. Ideally, no later than June.
I'll update in a week or so about IRB proposal stuff, dissertation proposal (part 2) stuff, and all sorts of fun things like grant admin and control techniques. But for now, here's a brief synopsis of what I study. I don't expect many to read this, and maybe I simply wrote this for myself, but at least the handful of you who do will know what's up in my lab.
TL;DR -- I study neural activation when people use social strategies.
Broad overview of my dissertation project
I study aspects of Theory of Mind, which is roughly described as how I think you are feeling. Some call it mentalizing. The ability to interpret how someone is thinking or feeling is important for humans, as it enables us to prepare for upcoming decisions (e.g. interpreting anger and trying to calm someone down before they punch someone) or reflect on our own previous decisions (e.g. interpreting my own thoughts and actions from a previous event and perhaps trying to change my actions next time). Mentalizing is important in almost every social interaction, as you rely on many things that are automatic but involve Theory of Mind -- like social norms (e.g. saying hello), or action mimicking (e.g. a hand shake), or interpreting non-verbal cues (e.g. when someone looks "lost" at a party).
I study a very particular avenue of Theory of Mind, which is strategy formation and usage. Many Theory of Mind studies revolve around decision making tasks, like The Prisoner's Dilemma. The scenario of Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) is that you and a partner are both interrogated for a small crime, but the cops want you to testify against the other person for a bigger crime. If you both stay silent, then you both serve the small crime sentence. If you both testify, then you both serve the big crime sentence. However, if one testifies and one stays silent, then the person who testifies goes free and the person who stays silent serves a maximum sentence. In a laboratory task format, you usually play this scenario against someone else multiple times -- which tends to get participants to develop strategies for how to get their partner to cooperate with them (e.g. staying silent). PD is a task that game theorists have studied for decades -- over half a century now -- and have developed all sorts of different strategies in order to get your partner to cooperate. Some are more coercive than others. Some are so straightforward (like "all defect" which is when you literally testify against the other person every choice) that it doesn't seem to be much like a strategy at all.
This is where Theory of Mind comes in. A strategy is merely a formula that you apply to a scenario and the outcome is merely more information for your formula. However, when something interrupts your formula -- for instance, you expected someone to defect but they cooperated -- then you have to account for this instance as either an outlier or as a change in your partner's Theory of Mind. In Theory of Mind literature, this is called Theory Theory, where you have a working theory of how a situation is going but something interrupts it (think of times when social norms are broken, those are interruptions of Theory Theory). So as someone changes their own strategy, your Theory Theory has to interpret whether these changes are within the behaviors you have predicted this person to make or if they are irregular. If they are irregular, then boom -- you most likely will change to reflect a newly updated theory of their mentalizations.
Studying strategy is extremely difficult for three reasons. First, does strategy involve Theory of Mind? Once you adopt a strategy, you can argue that Theory of Mind goes out the window since you are merely applying that strategy to a situation without regards to the person you are against. Think of games or sports. In a really rough example, when coaches review their opponents, they generalize opponents into different plays or situations -- this turns a game into choices based on pattern recognition and formula, not necessarily based on Theory of Mind. When you recognize a certain pattern, you apply a certain formula to that pattern. The Theory of Mind required for this is all completed during practice and training, not during the game when you recognize a play. So when the actual decision comes around, you aren't thinking about the mental state of everyone involved in a certain play but rather your actions and responsibilities according to the pattern you have recognized. On a smaller, smaller, smaller scale, if I teach you a strategy (e.g. whatever your partner chooses, you choose the next time), are you choosing based on mentalizing your opponent or simply based on the behaviors of the strategy I taught you?
Second reason why strategies are difficult to study: what sort of Theory Theory are you coming into a scenario with? Unlike tests that can assess for level of performance (e.g. a math or a reading test), there is no standardized Theory Theory test. And even if there were, how would they even be incorporated into a test for strategy? Simply put, everyone has completely different opinions on how people will behave in any given situation. That leads to differences in Theory Theory -- there is no way to simply have a baseline Theory Theory for everyone to use. Even if you teach someone a strategy, and assume they choose based off of Theory of Mind still, their assumptions of how their opponent will behave are completely independent from the strategy you teach them. In our sports example, people still make errors during plays because people will play into the mentalization of their opponent as opposed to applying a formula to a recognized pattern.
A third reason why strategies are difficult to study: what does Theory Theory even look like? I study this using neuroimaging equipment (EEG and fNIRS), and the majority of the literature on Theory of Mind implicates generally two areas: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ; in some literature it is referred to as the inferior parietal lobule, IPL). However, there are a vast amount of areas that are also implicated in Theory of Mind, making it difficult to understand exactly which areas are networked for Theory of Mind. On top of that, since these decision making tasks also have other processes involved -- executive functioning, attention, memory -- it is difficult to say that any area in particular is generating activity due to Theory of Mind (let alone Theory Theory) when these areas are also correlated with the non-Theory of Mind processes within the exact same task. So even if the strategy I train someone on produces specific Theory Theory activity, and the person who learns this strategy has their own Theory Theory that is not extremely variable from everybody else's Theory Theory, then the brain activity that I am recording still may not be Theory of Mind activity.
So why study it, if the road seems relatively impossible? One really, really big reason that many neuro-Theory of Mind researchers believe is that Theory of Mind is unique to humans -- or at the very least, near-impossible to study on any other animal model. Theory of Mind is what helps guide humans through complex social mazes, creates social rules for ourselves, and shapes our sense of reality but interpreting other's actions and assigning thoughts or emotions that are not explicitly stated. Studying strategies is a subset of these things: we use strategies to navigate complex scenarios, we develop strategies in order to prepare ourselves for similar future situations, and we shape our senses of reality based on fitting our behaviors into different strategies. Another way to say all of this: in social situations, I believe people don't simply choose things just to choose things but rather based on some history which forms a strategy for a choice.
A big reason for me to study this is that Theory of Mind measures are very variable. From a methods standpoint, turning "off" and "on" neural networks for Theory of Mind is pretty difficult and most are not convincing. With strategies, you can at least theorize that the use of a strategy could perhaps decrease Theory of Mind activity on average, assuming the opponent doesn't change their behaviors often. This is when a strategy could perhaps "take over" and behaviors become "automatic" as opposed to mentalized and processed via Theory of Mind. This is (hypothetically) the "off" button Theory of Mind research seeks. This could perhaps provide less variance to Theory of Mind tasks that involve a this-or-that choice paradigm.
Another reason is because to date, many Theory of Mind studies that use some social scenario seem to never take into account strategic differences within a social game. Many social dilemma games like PD get boiled down to a single choice of whether someone cooperated or defected, but generally skim over the fact that people using strategies may not even be using Theory of Mind at all. So the gap in the current literature on Theory Theory involves the bridge of strategies and whether Theory Theory (and therefore, Theory of Mind) can be generated by strategy formation and usage.
A clinical reason to study Theory of Mind is that Theory of Mind can be impaired (e.g. ASD, schizophrenia, brain lesions, or even depression), but other functions can be maintained (e.g. attention, executive functioning, memory). It is hypothetically possible that if strategy formation and usage can be taught without taxing Theory of Mind, then people with Theory of Mind impairments could perhaps still use Theory of Mind strategies. Therefore, understanding the neural basis of strategy formation and usage would perhaps bridge the gap between executive functions/memory/attention and Theory of Mind.
Another reason is to generate a more comprehensive basis of Theory Theory, a subset of Theory of Mind. Currently, Theory Theory is difficult to study simply because it is hard to design controls for Theory Theory tasks. How does one control disruptions to someone's subjective reality? With strategies, we can at least control for the differences in using a trained strategy versus not using a trained strategy -- may it be a weak control, it is at the very least some sort of control. Neural differences in someone else's behavior for those choosing by a strategy should be easier to identify when compared to someone using an unknown or untaught strategy (or no strategy at all), perhaps because strategy usage does use less Theory of Mind than unknown-or-no strategy usage. So when an aberration in Theory Theory is recognized, the difference in activity may be much larger for strategy users than unknown-or-no strategy users.
This would play into a Theory of Mind timeline theory that I have, and will discuss in a few posts from now.
But for now, this will do for an introduction.
You can read my next day here -- Day 5