Published in MIT Technology Review:
Rebecca Saxe wants to know how our brains learn to be social.
More precisely, Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, has built her career by trying to grasp how we make judgments about other people’s thoughts, a faculty dubbed Theory of Mind (ToM).
Our brains perform ToM cognition to decipher what lies behind a smile, a grimace, a catch in someone’s voice. As Saxe writes, ToM is “the mechanism people use to infer and reason about another person’s state of mind.” To track ToM, she has had to master the art of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI scanners are cumbersome and tricky to use well—and their results are challenging to interpret. But Saxe has become a virtuoso of the machine, beginning when, as a postdoc, she came to wrestle with a problem that she says still blows her mind.