Publications of Pierre Jacob

Is mindreading a gadget?

Non-cognitive gadgets are fancy tools shaped to meet specific, local needs. Cecilia Heyes defines cognitive gadgets as dedicated psychological mechanisms (e.g. cooking and sporting expertise) created through social interactions and culturally, not genetically, inherited by humans. She has boldly proposed that many human cognitive mechanisms (including imitation, numeracy, literacy, language and mindreading) are gadgets. If true, these claims would have far-reaching implications for our scientific understanding of human social cognition. Here we assess Heyes’s cognitive gadget approach as it applies to mindreading. We do not think that the evidence supports Heyes’s thought-provoking thesis that human children are taught to read minds the way they are taught to read words. We highlight a potential circularity lurking behind this analogy, and we explain why we are unpersuaded by Heyes’s anti-mentalistic proposal for handling data inconsistent with the gadget view, which others take to be evidence for mindreading in human infancy. We conclude that while human minds may well be filled with gadgets, mindreading is unlikely to be one of them.

What do false-belief tests show?

In a (2018) paper published in Psychological Review, Tyler Burge has offered a unified non-mentalistic account of a wide range of social cognitive developmental findings. His proposal is that far from attributing mental states (e.g. beliefs), young children attribute to humans the same kind of internal generic states of sensory registration that biologists attribute to e.g. snails and ticks. Burge’s proposal deserves close attention: it is especially challenging because it departs from both the mentalistic and all the non-mentalistic accounts of the data so far. Moreover Burge has been one of the leading philosophers of mind of the past 40 years and some of his writings on the objectivity of perception display a deep understanding of the relevance of science for sharpening our understanding of the mind. After taking a close look at the developmental evidence, in particular at false-belief studies, I argue that Burge’s (Psychological Review, 125(3), 409–434, 2018) account faces severe obstacles. To give one telling example: if young children can only attribute to others sensory registrations, then it is hard to explain the evidence showing that they respond differently to an agent’s ignorance and to her false belief.

Coping with informational atomism - one of Jerry Fodor’s legacies

Fodor was passionately unwilling to compromise. Of his several commitments, I focus here on informational atomism. Fodor staunchly rejected semantic holism for two conspiring reasons. He took it to threaten his commitment to the nomic character of psychological explanation. He also took it to pave the way towards relativism, which he found deeply offensive. In this paper, I reconstruct the strands of Fodor’s commitment to the computational version of the representational theory of mind that led him to informational atomism. I take issue with three features of informational atomism. First, I argue that it deprives content from its expected causal role in psychological explanation. Secondly, I take issue with Fodor’s claim that only informational atomism can meet the requirements of the principle of compositionality. Finally, I argue that informational atomism yields a bloated or unwieldy category of nomic properties.

Making sense of human interaction benefits from communicative cues

We investigated whether communicative cues help observers to make sense of human interaction. We recorded EEG from an observer monitoring two individuals who were occasionally communicating with each other via either mutual eye contact and/or pointing gestures, and then jointly attending to the same object or attending to different objects that were placed on a table in front of them. The analyses were focussed on the processing of the interaction outcome (i.e. presence or absence of joint attention) and showed that its interpretation is a two-stage process, as reflected in the N300 and the N400 potentials. The N300 amplitude was reduced when the two individuals shared their focus of attention, which indicates the operation of a cognitive process that involves the relatively fast identification and evaluation of actor–object relationships. On the other hand, the N400 was insensitive to the sharing or distribution of the two individuals’ attentional focus. Interestingly, the N400 was reduced when the interaction outcome was preceded either by mutual eye contact or by a perceived pointing gesture. This shows that observation of communication “opens up” the mind to a wider range of action possibilities and thereby helps to interpret unusual outcomes of social interactions.

Challenging the two-systems model of mindreading

The two-systems model of mindreading advocated by Ian Apperly and Steve Butterfill seeks to find a middle ground between full-blown mindreading and either behaviour-reading or so-called ‘sub-mentalizing’. Minimal mindreading is taken to be efficient, automatic, and to emerge early in human ontogenetic development. Full-blown mindreading is taken to be flexible, less efficient, and to develop later. This chapter raises three challenges for this model. First, it challenges its claim to resolve the developmental puzzle. Secondly, it challenges the claim that the representation of the aspectuality of beliefs falls outside the scope of minimal mindreading. Finally, examination of the contrast between Level-1 and Level-2 visual perspective-taking undermines the sharp dichotomy between automatic and flexible cognitive processes. The alternative picture supported by this chapter is of a single mindreading system that can be used in ways that are more or less effortful as a result of interacting with other cognitive systems, such as working memory and executive control.

Beyond Empathy for Pain

Here we address four objections raised by Julien Deonna, John Michael, and Francesca Fardo against a recent account of empathy for pain (by Frédérique de Vignemont and Tania Singer and Vignemont and Pierre Jacob). First, to what extent must the empathizer share her target’s affective state? Second, how can one interpret neuroscientific findings on vicarious pain in light of recent results challenging the notion of a pain matrix? Third, can one offer a simpler account of how empathy makes one aware of another’s emotion? Finally, to what extent can this account of empathy for pain be generalized to empathy for emotions?

Solving the Puzzle about Early Belief‐Ascription

Developmental psychology currently faces a deep puzzle: most children before 4 years of age fail elicited‐response false‐belief tasks, but preverbal infants demonstrate spontaneous false‐belief understanding. Two main strategies are available: cultural constructivism and early‐belief understanding. The latter view (unlike the former) assumes that failure at elicited‐response false‐belief tasks need not reflect the inability to understand false beliefs. The burden of early‐belief understanding is to explain why elicited‐response false‐belief tasks are so challenging for most children under 4 years of age. The goal of this article is to offer a pragmatic framework whose purpose is to discharge this burden.

Emotional contagion: its scope and limits

The contagion model of emotional propagation has almost become a dogma in cognitive science. We turn here to the evolutionary approach to communicative interactions to probe the limits of the contagion model.