How do we know what another person is thinking? New research suggests we use the same brain region that we do when thinking about ourselves — but only as long as we judge the person to be similar to us. When second-guessing the opinions and feelings of those unlike ourselves, this brain region does not get involved, the new research shows. This may mean we are more likely to fall back on stereotyping — potentially helping to explain the causes of social tensions such as racism or religious disputes.
Neuroscientists led by Adrianna Jenkins of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made the discovery when trying to deduce how the brain weighs up the thoughts of others. As Jenkins explains, judging how others are feeling is a valuable social skill, because we have no way of seeing inside another person’s head. “How do we go about bridging the gap between our minds and others’ minds?” Jenkins asks.
The answer seems to be that it depends on whether we feel we identify with that person or not, Jenkins says. In other words, how our brain handles the question of someone’s attitude to anything, from traffic jams to impressionist art, depends entirely on how we feel we relate to them as a person.