Hiram Brownell and Ellen Winner

(Department of Psychology, Boston College)

Neuroanatomy, "Theory of Mind," and Non-Literal Utterances

[research in progress]

Hiram Brownell and Ellen Winner are studying communication problems in people with right-hemisphere and frontal-lobe brain damage, in order to determine whether damage to these areas impairs people's ability to make inferences about other people's mental states. They have already demonstrated that right-hemisphere brain damage impairs the ability to distinguish between jokes and lies, and that associated with the impairment is a difficulty in determining what the speaker thinks the listener knows (a mental state inference). Their work is an attempt to explore the brain basis of a person's "theory of mind." Theory of mind refers to a person's understanding that behavior is motivated by mental states-- beliefs about the world, and beliefs about other people's beliefs. If one lacks a full theory of mind, one should have difficulty getting the point of certain kinds of utterances, particularly nonliteral ones.

Some of our findings to date have been published in:

Winner, E., Brownell, H., Happé, F., Blum, A., & Pincus, D. (1996). "Distinguishing lies from jokes: Theory of mind deficits and discourse interpretation in right hemisphere brain-damaged patients." Brain and Language, in press.

Brownell, H., Pincus, D., Blum, A., Rehak, A., & Winner, E. (1997). "The effects of right hemisphere brain-damage patients' use of terms of personal reference." Brain and Language, 57, 1, 60-79.