Chris Frith FRS FmedSci FBA
Although I retired from my position at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging in 2007, I am continuing with my studies of Interacting Minds. This discipline concerns the neural basis of social interaction. In particular, I have been trying to delineate the mechanisms underlying the human ability to share representations of the world, for it is this ability that makes communication possible and allows us to achieve more than we could as individuals. I am fortunate in having a number of excellent collaborators for this enterprise, in particular, Uta Frith. Initially my main experimental work was performed in the interacting minds centre at AarhusUniversity, with Andreas Roepstorff, where we developed some new paradigms for testing people in groups. In October 2011 I was elected a two-year fellow of All-Souls where I organised a series of seminars on Meta-cognition in order to explore the critical role of this process in sharing experiences. Since 2014 my studies are mostly conducted at the Institute of Philosophy where I am working with Nick Shea contrasting conscious and unconscious cognitive processes and exploring how instructions work with Uri Herz.
We think that there are two major processes involved. The first is an automatic form of priming (sometimes referred to as contagion or empathy), whereby our representations of the world become aligned with those of the person with whom we are interacting. The second is a form of forward modelling, analogous to that used in the control of our own actions. Such generative Bayesian models enable us to predict the actions of others and use prediction errors to correct and refine our representations of the mental states of the person we are interacting with.
We are carrying out behavioural and brain imaging experiments that will delineate the neural mechanisms that underlie these two processes in healthy volunteers.
The results will be relevant for our understanding of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. One characteristic of the mistaken perceptions (hallucinations) and beliefs (delusions) associated with this disorder is their resistance to change in spite of their incompatibility with the beliefs and perceptions of others. This indicates a failure in the mechanism by which we align our representations of the world with those of others. Delineating the normal mechanisms of alignment will help us to identify the neural basis of hallucinations and delusions.
Directly emerging from these studies of interacting minds I have become increasingly interested in the role of culture: How it creates us and how we create it. I have been thinking about the role of culture in our experience of volition and responsibility. You can read about this in my essay in honour of Marc Jeannerod. I have also been thinking (again) about the problem of the top, in top-down control. There is no top within the individual person. We are all part of much bigger loops by which culture (other people) exerts top-down control on us while we in turn attempt to influence others. You can read about this in my essay on How the brain creates culture. At the interface between the person and culture are explicit metacognitive processes. It is these processes that enable culture to have top-down effects on our experience and behaviour and also allow us to share our experiences with others. Uta and I recently presented these ideas at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
Uta and I are currently developing the idea we presented in Paris for publication. One book, provisionally entitled 'Two Heads', will be in the form of a graphic novel written by our son Alex Frith and illustrated by Daniel Locke. The other is a more conventional book, 'What makes us social', to be published by MIT Press. You can see some pages from the graphic novel here. We have written about both projects, and much, much more, on the Frithmind website.