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Although I have retired from my position at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, I am still keen to develop the new discipline of neural hermeneutics. This discipline concerns the neural basis of social interaction. I am fortunate in having a number of excellent collaborators for this enterprise, in particular, Uta Frith. Our main experimental work is currently performed in the 'interacting minds' group at the University of Aarhus in collaboration the Wellcome Centre at UCL. We are trying to delineate the mechanisms underlying the human ability to share representations of the world. It is this ability that makes communication possible.
We think that there are two major processes involved. The first is an automatic form of priming (sometimes referred to as contagion or empathy), whereby our representations of the world become aligned with those of the person with whom we are interacting. The second is a form of forward modelling, analogous to that used in the control of our own actions. Such generative models enable us to predict the actions of others and use prediction errors to correct and refine our representations of the mental states of the person we are interacting with.
We are carrying out a series of behavioural and brain imaging experiments that will delineate the neural mechanisms that underlie these two processes in healthy volunteers.
The results will be relevant for our understanding of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. One characteristic of the mistaken perceptions (hallucinations) and beliefs (delusions) associated with this disorder is their resistance to change in spite of their incompatibility with the beliefs and perceptions of others. This indicates a failure in the mechanism by which we align our representations of the world with those of others. Delineating the normal mechanisms of alignment will help us to identify the neural basis of hallucinations and delusions.