Joshua Sariñana examines photography as it applies to culture and neuroscience. He’s actually a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. One of the things that I find very interesting is that when we see someone’s facial expression our reflexive action is to mimic that same facial expression. When we mimic that facial expression we automatically begin to feel the emotions associated with that facial expression. This is the one of the ways that we empathize with others. It’s also why expressiveness in your photographs can elicit emotions in the eyes of your viewers.
Theory of Mind
Imitation is a basic social skill that often occurs unconsciously. However, as we age we become much more aware of someone’s emotions not by direct observation by rather by judging their intent. Intent requires us to place ourselves into someone else’s perspective and to hold the belief that other people have minds that are distinct from our own.
The Theory of Mind is a subfield of cognitive neuroscience that studies how humans understand the mental states of other people. The general idea is that the mind is something we cannot see and thus we must believe that it exists in theory, hence the name Theory of Mind. Because mental states are not observable, much of what we know about human behavior is through observing someone’s intent.
It’s quite the step in cognition to go from imitation to understanding someone’s intention. Indeed, understanding the mental state of others is a developmental milestone and it does not happen until about the age of four. The “false-belief test” is one way by which children are determined to have a developed a theory of mind.