Of two minds about false belief

Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology writes in detail about a study of bilingual people handling “theory of mind” problems. (“Theory of mind” means the ability to predict the behavior of others based on their underlying intention — as in, I know what he’s going to do. See? I was right.)

The study deals with so-called false-belief tests: Someone sees Max watch Sam put food in the cupboard. Max leaves the room, and Sam moves the food to the fridge. When Max returns, will he look for the food in the fridge, or in the cupboard?

Young children think he’ll look in the fridge, because they know that’s where the food is and they think Max will know, too. That’s a false belief.

The study looks at subjects who spoke both Japanese and English (though one drawback is that English was in all cases a second language).

What I like about Downey’s post is that he points out how complicated this stuff is. It’s hard to pin down the ways in which being bilingual affects the ability to reason through false-belief problems.

The design of such tasks for a study like this can make it hard to see the difference.

At the same time, the study supports the notion that the earlier we acquire a second language, “the closer it is in our brain (literally) to our first language.” Downey points out that people who learn a language later in life learn it more through declarative memory (to oversimply, factual, know-that memory) than through procedural memory (unconscious, know-how memory).

Don’t touch — dangerous for the lifeHere’s an example of the difference. Say you’re a native speaker of American English. Your ability to use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) is largely in procedural memory. You don’t think about why you say “he’s in school,” “I need a snack,” “Connie’s studying chemistry,” “I walked the dog and he chased a squirrel.” You just speak.

Now imagine explaining how you make those decisions to a Russian learning English. Russian doesn’t have articles, so it’s impossible to say “the dog” rather than “a dog.”

Downey also discusses the limitations he sees in the study, including an implied oversimplification in terms of cultural differences, as in the sweeping “Westerners have been shown to view the world more analytically, while Easterners tend to view the world more holistically.”

Sometimes I just like reading about complicated things. As Whitehead said, “Seek simplicity, but distrust it.”

Russian “do not touch” photo by Krissi.