The Internet and How It Affects Our Ability to Develop, Maintain, and Manipulate Mental Containers (part I)

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In recent months I have read two books that take opposing views concerning the future of the Internet and its impact on empathy. The first is economist and educator Jeremy Rifkin’s 2014 book entitled The Zero Marginal Cost Society—The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism (which I blogged about in my previous two posts). Rifkin argues that the Internet, and the sharing communities it will help to facilitate, will increase levels of empathy within our society as we move toward Collaborative Commons. In contrast, MIT psychology and sociology researcher Sherry Turkle, writing in her 2015 book entitled Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, argues quite the opposite: the Internet and social media will decrease empathy and actually atomize people by placing them in greater levels of social isolation. As an example of Turkle’s position, I just read the following article that suggests that mobile device use is increasing depression in teens, especially teen girls: New research suggests teen depression rates are rising, especially among girls. So, who’s right, Rifkin or Turkle? In this two-part blog series I’d like to take a stab at answering this question. I’ll be using Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a background because at its core Bowlby’s theory could be looked at as a theory of empathy.

Let me ask you this: Does your mind harbor thoughts of false beliefs? Can you imagine something that does not exist, say, zero? How about empathy? Are you able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes? If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you have an ability to develop, maintain, and manipulate what cognitive scientists call “mental containers.” What the heck is a mental container? Writing in their 2002 book entitled The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities, cognitive scientists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner provide compelling evidence that suggests we use mental containers to think with. The following experimental study should give you some idea of what a mental container is. Cognitive scientists have developed what are known as “false belief” studies. Allow me to describe a typical false belief study. To me, the design is rather ingenious.

False belief studies are conducted with kids around the age of three or four years old. Experimenters use two rooms separated by a one-way mirror (like the ones you see on TV when there’s a police lineup). One child is placed in the room that can see through to the other. This child is the one actually being tested and is the test subject. Another child is placed in the room that only sees a reflection in the one-way mirror. This child is the dummy child. Experimenter (1) enters and begins working with the dummy child by showing her a box sitting on a table. Experimenter (1) opens the box and shows the child that the box contains crayons. He then closes the box and asks the child to leave for a moment. As this action is taking place, the test subject observes the dummy child through the one-way mirror. While the dummy child is out of the room, experimenter (1) removes the crayons and replaces them with candy in full view of the test subject via the one-way mirror. Now, experimenter (2), who is working with the test subject, asks the following question: “Before the child you are observing comes back in the room, could you tell me what she thinks is in the box?” That’s a typical false belief experimental design. Let’s look at the results and what they tell us.

Kids who have not yet developed the ability to create and maintain false beliefs will say that the dummy child is thinking that candy is in the box even though the dummy child never witnessed the crayons being replaced with candy. Only the test subject witnessed the swap from crayons to candy. Kids who have developed the ability to create and maintain false beliefs will say that the dummy child is thinking that crayons are in the box, which, as we know, is a false belief because the box now contains candy. Before the development of false belief, a child will answer what they know to be in their mind because they are not able to cognitively create two separate mental containers—one for themselves and one for the mind of the dummy child. After false belief appears (and the ability to develop and maintain two separate mental containers), kids will answer according to what they imagine is in the mind of the child they are observing, not what is in their mind.

A child must develop the cognitive ability to create and maintain at least two mental containers—one for the mind of the self, and one for the mind of the other—before they can imagine the mind of another person. The same holds true for empathy: at least two mental containers are required. Research using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) suggests that secure attachment allows us to develop, maintain, and manipulate mental containers in open and flexible ways. This is why empathy development and secure attachment are often associated together.

Being able to correctly identify false beliefs is a cognitive development milestone. Cognitive scientists point to the ability to engage in false belief as the beginning of what they call Theory of Mind or ToM. Theory of Mind is about people being able to see other people as being minded. ToM is also about a person realizing that their mind (or mental container) could be different from the mind (or mental container) of another. ToM is key to empathy: being able to hold two mental containers in mind—self and other—at the same time.

When you walk in someone else’s shoes, you are actually using two different mental containers. The same goes for the concept zero. To imagine zero, you have to be able to imagine “not zero.” As Fauconnier and Turner put it, “[N]onthings [e.g., immaterial things] do indeed play a large role in everyday thinking.” Fauconnier and Turner point to the development of the concept “zero” as constituting one of the greatest immaterial tools that we use everyday without comment. Imaginary and negative numbers simply could not exist without zero (and, by extension, much of complex math).

As cognitive scientist George Lakoff tells us in his 2004 book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant, to not think of an elephant, we must first create a mental container containing elephant and then create a second “negation” mental container. We then map no characteristics of an elephant from the elephant mental container over to the negation mental container. The point that Lakoff makes is this: To negate a concept we have to first bring that concept to mind, thus making that concept active. So, if a political candidate negates his or her political opponent, the opponent is brought to mind and is cognitively active, which is risky from a persuasion standpoint. This is why Hollywood types will often say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

I find the topic of mental containers to be wildly important. Our ability to engage in what cognitive scientists call “mental time travel” depends on our ability to develop, maintain, and manipulate mental containers. To engage in mental time travel, we have to set up a container for the present, one for the past, and one for the future. When we use verb tense in language—past, present, and future—we are setting up mental containers that allow us to time travel. Cognitive scientists George Lakoff (mentioned above) and Mark Johnson (as well as Fauconnier and Turner) tell us that the ability to engage in metaphoric conceptualization depends on our ability to develop multiple mental containers. For more on this theme, see Lakoff and Turner’s classic 1980 book entitled Metaphors We Live By. These same scientists will tell you that we use multiple mental containers when we find something funny. Comedy (as well as metaphor) is about blending elements from one mental container with elements from another. The metaphor “a goat is an eating machine” combines elements from a goat mental container and a machine mental container. In this way, a goat’s ability to methodically graze a field is combined with a machine’s ability to run without rest in very efficient ways.

Comedians are masters at combining cognitive elements from multiple mental containers in ways we would not expect. When children play with reality, such as picking up a banana and making a phone call, they are blending mental containers. So, yes, imaginary play is critical as far as developing the ability to engage in mental container blending. Although beyond the scope of this post, we need well developed mental container abilities to read fine literature (i.e., create mental containers for each of the various characters). Mental container skills, along with the ability to blend containers, is the central focus of The Way We Think.

Now, here’s where things get a bit sad (in my opinion). Kids and adults who are on the autism spectrum have a very tough time dealing with such things as false belief, Theory of Mind, metaphoric conceptualization, comedy, and empathy. Simply, their ability to develop, maintain, and manipulate mental containers (including mental container blends) is compromised. People who have experienced trauma often have difficulty keeping mental containers straight. As an example, soldiers who have a history of PTSD will often have what psychologists call “reliving experiences”—experiencing traumatic events from the past in the present as if they are happening right now today. In essence, during reliving experiences, the ability to engage in mental time travel is compromised. One goal of therapy is to bring a sense of time back to these past traumatic experiences. When we learn a new language and then visit that culture, we often do not get their jokes. Why? Because mental container blending is very culturally sensitive. It could take years living in a particular culture before one is “in on the joke.”

In part II, I’ll take a stab at trying to answer the question, “Is the Internet minded?” Another way to view this question is to ask, “Is the Internet able to develop, maintain, and manipulate mental containers?” The answer to this question is important because our kids (and many adults) are spending so much time on the Internet. They’re also spending a lot of time with so-called sociable Internet beings such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa. What are these sociable beings doing to us as far as helping (or hindering) our ability to engage in mental container thinking? So goes mental containers, so too such things as Theory of Mind, empathy, metaphor, comedy, and even our ability to make sense of zero. To whet your appetite, all of the things I have been talking about—Theory of Mind, empathy, metaphor, comedy, mental time travel, etc.—depend heavily on our ability to develop what are known as the Executive Functions (EF). EF skills principally reside in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the mind. Bowlby’s theory of attachment (along with extensions into such areas as affect regulation and neurobiology) gives us the following theoretical statement concerning cognitive development: Early safe and secure attachment relationships with primary attachment figures early in life (if all goes well) pours the foundation upon which rests Executive Function skills such as empathy, focusing attention, mental time travel, and perspective taking. I say “if all goes well” because there are organic factors, such as autism, that could prevent early secure attachment leading to robust EF. [1]

I’ll start part II by looking at an intriguing theory called mentalization theory. Psychology researcher Peter Fonagy and his colleagues have done much as far as promoting the idea of mentalization (MZ). Not to give away the surprise but MZ theory is about how we become minded, how we come to see others as minded (as having minds), how we keep the mind of self and the mind of other separate, and how we develop mental containers (using Fauconnier and Turner’s frame). See you then.

P.S.—I’m not necessarily recommending this book (because it’s long and somewhat technical) but Fonagy and his colleagues present MZ theory in their 2002 book entitled Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self.


[1] Authors have suggested that Steve Jobs was on the autism spectrum. They also argue that Jobs was a unique visionary. Being able to see into the future is an EF skill. So, clearly people on the autism spectrum are able to develop EF. What makes these individuals unique is their capacity to develop one EF skill, say, being a visionary, to the exclusion of others, say, empathy. Cognitive researchers will use the term “splinter cognition” to refer to cognitive abilities that are ramped up in relation to others. Most savants are blessed with (or suffer from) splinter cognition. Financial analyst (and medical doctor) Michael Burry, who correctly predicted and shorted the 2008 economic crisis, would also fit here. Burry’s story was profiled in the 2015 movie The Big Short. Apparently companies are discovering that persons on the autism spectrum have unique talents. “Autistic individuals’ strengths include the ability to find patterns and anomalies in data and to focus and perform high-quality repetitive work. Those attributes are valuable in roles in data analysis, IT, software design and multimedia,” announces this article by Jenny Che: Why More Companies Are Eager To Hire People With Autism.