Mind Reading with My Granddaughter

Sneaky Photo Credit: Marjorie Elliott

The photo above is of my granddaughter and I walking to her nursery school this past October. Ever since she was born in 2018, the connections to what I know about learning obviously bubble up when I see her playing or hear her first babbling and now talking. And we are talking really TALKING.

Mirror neurons come to mind whenever I get the chance to see this amazing kind in action. (She is amazing because let’s remember this blog is entitled ‘Testing: a Personal History’, and I am THE person, her grandfather.) What are mirror neurons and why did I think they were very much in action with this little girl? “Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. They were first discovered in the early 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.

So, when I’m playing with my granddaughter there’s a kind of mind reading going on and she figures out what I’m doing and it lights of neurons in her brain and I observe what she is doing so it lights up more neurons in my brain. Engaging in that way aids learning but so far not exactly in ways that we quite understand. And that’s one of the reasons why any tests that we do develop now have to try to get at this black box of cognition so that we know more about things like mirror neurons.

We already know that mirror neurons are not the miracle described in the headlines when they were first discovered in the 1990s as Cecelia Heyes pointed out in a fairly recent paper: “ It turns out that mirror neurons are not “Cells That Read Minds” (Blakesee, 2006), they do not alone explain “what makes humans social” (Lehrer, 2008), and they have not been able to “do for psychology what DNA did for biology” (Ramachandran, 2009).”  But they do “contribute to complex control systems rather than dominating such systems or acting alone. … when mirror neurons are studied in the context of system-level theory—as having the potential to fulfill a specified part in a complex process—they can help researchers to understand the categorization of body movements, aspects of speech perception, and the neurological bases of imitation.”

That’s what I thought I saw in my granddaughter: her ability to mirror, to imitate, leading to learning and new capabilities. What doess this have to do with testing? From my perspective, testing should only be about facilitating learning in educational settings. Therefore, if the possibilities for learning depend in part on a system that is not entirely genetically determined than it makes sense for us to research further how we can aid and reinforce that system. The tests that we use should only be tests that support learning. That’s it. I hope that my granddaughter grows up in a world where summative tests only exist in museums of testing if there is still such a thing; pretty sure that ETS has disbanded the world-famous collection it had.

One of the implications of such a conclusion is that our tests would need to do a much better job of understanding social learning. Here’s where again Cecelia is instructive for me as she points out that the difference between cultural and genetic selection provides a vivid example of the implications of choosing or at least involving cultural evolution instead of relying only upon genetic theories of development. In the former view, the social mechanisms described “are inherited through social learning, but also because social group membership influences which cognitive mechanism and individual is likely to develop.” This recognition that the inheritance of cognitive mechanisms can take place “by group level or social processes — things that go on between people, rather than inside individuals’ heads — such as conversation, storytelling, turn-taking, collective reminiscing, teaching, demonstrating, and engaging in synchronous drills” shifts how we should look at not just teaching and learning but larger social phenomena. Collaborative learning becomes more important; social contexts grow in their significance.

In dealing with the opportunity gaps that exist among different layers of American society, current interventions may prove inconsistent with this newer contemplation of the inheritance and transmission of cognitive mechanisms. My granddaughter enjoys the extraordinary blessing of a particular set of social contacts with these relatives around her to help her in the above tasks and activities. What can we do to aid those who lack the social context?

More generally, Heyes’ reading of research indicating print reading and literacy training are disanalogous to other distinctively human cognitive mechanisms “implies that, in the future, the cultural inheritance of other cognitive mechanisms could be enhanced by formal education. It may be possible to design training programs — for use by caregivers, in schools, or in the criminal justice system – to improve cognitive skills such as selectively social learning, imitation, and mind reading in a whole society or particular group.” (A comprehensive meta-analysis of the malleability of non-cognitive skills by my former  ETS colleagues Martin-Raugh , Williams, and Lentini for which I had the pleasure of being a preprint reader complements this notion that traits that we perhaps erroneously believed were influenced completely by genetics might alter significantly and valuably through better designed interventions that take into account the realities that Heyes presents.)  

 Heyes employs a sly and witty style: back in the notes section of her book, she points out that as a collectivist account, the cognitive gadget view has much in common with social constructivist accounts of mind reading. “However, unlike many social constructivists, and like ‘theory-theory’, the cognitive gadget view assumes that the processes involved in the development of mindreading are broadly rational and yield conceptual knowledge about the mind.”  


I was very game for the book that Tyler Cowen first brought to my attention. Rich with inventive metaphor and accessible allusions, Heyes gives us Lewis Carroll, Gestalt switches, and lactose intolerance to help us understand different theories of cultural evolution. In making her points, she also displays a wicked sense of humor. For example, to point out the remarkable social tolerance of humans as opposed to chimpanzees she employs Susan Hrdy’s research that people crammed together on an airplane disguise their irritation and get along whereas chimpanzees would attack each other so that “Bloody ear lobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.” 

Double ouch! 

 Much of what Heyes and her allies state still requires confirmatory and even extrapolatory research. Underlying principles to the theory need more of a foundation such as the tenet that “we like making things happen, whether the things are social or asocial. However, in everyday life, it is often social things that we are able to control, and therefore the reactions of other agents are a major source of response-contingent stimulation.” There is much to reconsider in this telling of human development. For example, halfway through the book and about to enter the passages devoted to four specific aspects of cultural evolutionary learning (selective social learning, imitation, mind-reading, and language), I found myself wanting to know how these mechanisms also can produce disastrous beliefs such as anti-vaccination or conspiracy theories.  

The relevance to those of us interested in helping people to learn in organizations is clear. It is plausible that we have overemphasized individual over social and cultural learning despite knowing the latter’s importance. It is also possible that we fail to appreciate the enduring power of cognitive gadgets such as copy the prestigious or successful that suggest that principles enunciated by many change management theorists such as Edwin Nevis of the need to employ high-level players within any organization in order to get attention and compliance are simply an outgrowth of this function.  If we apply the book’s insights to our own organizations, particularly Heyes’ points about cultural learning’s role in “enab(ling) each person and social group to benefit from the accumulated experience of innumerable other people, past and present, and thereby collectively to acquire knowledge and develop skills that far surpass those of other species”, do we find our current plans and methods wanting? 

 What about my granddaughter and all of this? As previously noted, I resist the idea that her and our fates are sealed by genetics and therefore, not only testing, but learning has distinct limits. I’m with Carol Dweck on a growth mindset. I’m also with Cecelia Heyes in supposing that “…it is possible that central cognitive processes are fully evolvable, but, at least in the human case, tend to be adaptively specialised by cultural rather than by genetic selection.” In other words, the way we do things around children will affect them significantly. In other other words, learning still matters even as we discover wonderful connections between our genetic inheritance and our lifetime potential. In the last words for today, rather than accepting simplistic answers about who we are and how we can develop we should instead appreciate the dazzling complexity within us and our world, from as this author noted the “complex  interplay  of  different  neurotransmitter functions”, which means that “no mental process is likely to be the product of nature, nurture, or culture alone,  and  that “learning and cultural inheritance play major roles in the development of human executive function.”

Oh, and my granddaughter is amazing, did I mention that?

PS the folks at WordPress asked me to add my favorite quote for their project Bloganuary. It’s from Branch Rickey: “Luck is the residue of design“, which kind of fits a blog entry arguing that it’s genes and learning, nature and nurture that matter in making us who we are and who we can be

2 thoughts on “Mind Reading with My Granddaughter

  1. Marianne Talbot

    I agree that the emphasis on the individual at the expense of the organisation (or whatever social or cultural context the learner is operating in) has dominated for years, perhaps ever since competitive entrance exams were introduced – and unless they are no longer competitive, I can’t really see this changing. But it can and does happen in the world of professional development, learning and assessment. I lead courses where co-operation, team-working, managing people as well as change, and leading assessment are seen as inextricably linking an individual’s own expertise with that of their staff/team/colleagues. This is a social and cultural framework from which there is no escape if you want to effect real, deep, and meaningful change. The power comes from establishing and maintaining a network of relationships, from being credible, reliable, persuasive, from making legitimate and manageable requests of yourself and others. This applies to testing as to the rest of life.


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