Theory of Mind (ToM) skills

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Language Is Not Enough for Brains in Conversation

Zoom Webinar:

4 October, 2:15 p.m. SEMINAR – WEB EVENT

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS), Uppsala

Julia Uddén, Pro Futura Scientia Fellow, SCAS, and the Departments of Linguistics and Psychology, Stockholm University.
Affiliated Researcher, Department of Neurobiology of Language, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen


Being able to communicate face-to-face with another person requires skills that go beyond core language abilities. In dialog comprehension, we routinely make inferences beyond the literal meaning of utterances. For instance, the utterance "it is hot in here" will in some circumstances mean "can you open the window?". This would be an example of a so-called indirect speech act. It is however not known whether communicative skills such as recognizing speech acts, potentially overlap with core language skills or other capacities, such as Theory of Mind (ToM) skills. I will talk about two studies where I have investigated these questions using brain imaging. Participants listened to dialogs, or participated in dialogs themselves, from within the scanner. The latter study allowed us to approach the question of how intentions are formed when producing speech, during actual conversation. Based on the results, I will argue that contextualized and multimodal communication requires neurocognitive networks different from those associated with (1) core language, (2) ToM/complex emotion processing, and (3) so called cognitive control. I will also touch on issues of interdisciplinary, vs cross- or multi-disciplinary research.


Selected readings


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 10:35 am

    2:15pm Swedish time?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 12:18 pm

    Unfortunately Zoom is equally vague —

    The webinar is scheduled for Tue, Sep 27

    Start 1:00 PM

    SCAS Webinar

  3. DJL said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 2:37 pm

    Do we really need brain imaging data to support these conclusions? That those three cognitive domains are probably, at bottom, qualitatively different is not a new point (some possible relationships notwithstanding); true, from time to time someone comes along and argues that these domains are interrelated or even co-dependent, but the evidence has never been very strong. A good, old-fashioned theoretical take has been enough in the past to make the point the talk is arguing for.

  4. anonymous said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    Unfortunately, I was a teenager in the early 2000s, so the command that comes to my mind when I hear, "It's hot in here," is, "So take off all your clothes." LOL to what that would do to the scanner results.

    @DJL: I too have sympathies for the "new phrenology" argument about brain scanning. But in this case, the research question is specifically around whether certain brain areas activate during certain tasks. A theoretical take might have been sufficient in the past, but now that we can actually test things out empirically, it's interesting to actually do so.

  5. V said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 3:44 pm

    DJL: On one hand, I've never seen any evidence that these three domains might be interrelated. Every time I have seen someone claim that it has always been spurious. But, at the same time it is very encouraging that someone is trying to debunk it that way specifically.

  6. DJL said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 4:36 pm

    V: true that.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2022 @ 6:20 pm

    Which "three domains"? If (1), (2) and (3) in the abstract, that they may be regarded separately would indeed seem to be the author's presumption here.

    And to second @anonymous, any- literally anything empirical is better than nothing. Pseudo-philosophical speculation is the pits generally, and has got to be worst of all when it's (recursively?) about "thought", "the mind"…

  8. DJL said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 3:14 am

    Jonathan Smith: Yes, the three cognitive domains mentioned the abstract – language, ToM, and cognitive control – what else would I referring to?

    And my point was that we don't really need brain imaging data to conclude that those domains are independent, there have always been well-grounded reasons to believe so (including empirical data, for sure, but not only because of taht; no idea what you are on about in the second paragraph).

  9. GH said,

    September 23, 2022 @ 4:12 am


    As I read the abstract, the conclusion the authors draw is not about whether these three domains are separate, but rather that there is yet another, fourth set of separate neurocognitive networks involved in recognizing speech acts.

  10. Kimball Kramer said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    What “It’s hot in here” means depends on whether the speaker is male or female. Women have been trained by men (fairly successfully) to act inferior and even feel inferior; to follow, not lead; never to demand, or even request, but to suggest indirectly what they want. This training has been gradually ending over the last few decades. But, because of it, when a woman says “it’s hot in here” she is indicating, indirectly, that she want’s something done to relieve it—perhaps opening a window. She is following her training not to suggest a direct command in any way. When a man says “it’s hot in here” he’s making a comment on the temperature and means just that; and he may even like the heat. If he wants the room cooler, he will (a) open a window, (b) say “will someone open a window”, or (c ), if he is polite, say “does anyone mind if I open a window”. [I’m talking “statistically”; these are not hard and fast rules that are always followed.]

  11. Terry K. said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 6:28 pm

    Sometimes men assume a woman making a statement like "It's hot in here" is wanting something done, when she's only commenting, nothing more, and doesn't need a man to fix her problem.

  12. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 7:50 am

    Terry K. has a point — why are we wasting all this energy trying to figure out how to talk to computers when we still haven't worked out how to talk to our spouses?

    Yesterday, my wife quite clearly violated a Gricean maxim with the unfortunate consequence that the garbage didn't get taken out. And she _still_ thinks it's my fault, even after all the peer-reviewed articles I showed her!

  13. Jon Anderson said,

    September 26, 2022 @ 10:37 am

    This is precisely why we have never gotten chatbots to work at all reasonably. You can program language, syntax, idiomology, logic, and even projected conversational flow easily enough. But there are dozens, if not hundreds, of esoteric minutiae which are neither linguistic or even tangible that provide both foundation and facilitation of the act of conversation. These are not optional to effective communication, they are essential. This can easily be seen when comparing face to face communication with communication via email or text. The latter is far more difficult because the medium prevents some of these minutiae from "participating" in the exchange.
    Interesting direction of research here!

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