Consortium for Interacting Minds Launches at Dartmouth

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The new group supports research in the study of human interaction.

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Consortium director and the consortium's principal investigators.
Consortium for Interacting Minds director Thalia Wheatley, second from right, and the consortium’s principal investigators. From left are Associate Professor Luke Chang, Mellon Faculty Fellow Kiara Sanchez, Assistant Professor Mark Thornton, Wheatley, and Assistant Professor Arjen Stolk. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)
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The new Consortium for Interacting Minds at Dartmouth is combining psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other fields in an effort to go beyond the workings of the solitary mind and better understand the interconnection of thought between people.

The interdisciplinary research could improve relationships, bolster mental health, and broaden the scientific understanding of how interacting minds form the foundation of society and human perceptions of the world, says Professor Thalia Wheatley, who directs the consortium with Associate Professor Luke Chang.

“What’s special about this is here we’re not pursuing our research alone,” says Wheatley, the Lincoln Filene Professor in Human Relations. “We’re building a whole program, a network of scientists and grad students and undergraduate students all committed to understanding how minds interact.” 

The consortium’s official launch is set for the fall, but its expansive website is live and the space, encompassing the length of Moore Hall’s second floor, is fully outfitted with meeting and symposium rooms and spaces to support state-of-the-art interactive research as well as informal social interactions. Grad students and researchers are already using the space, separated from the second-floor corridor by a glass wall running the length of the suite of rooms. The main meeting space, which will be equipped with a panorama of cameras for remote viewing, will host conferences, seminars, and events starting this summer.

The new consortium developed from early conversations, to proposals, to funding, to construction of the space and creation of the website over several years by five researchers from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

It started with a discussion at a conference between Wheatley and Chang, now principal investigator of the Computational Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab, and it grew with the help of Mellon Faculty Fellow Kiara Sanchez, from the Social Identity and Dialogue Lab; Assistant Professor Arjen Stolk, from the Mutual Understanding Lab; and Assistant Professor Mark Thornton, from the Social Computation Representation and Prediction Laboratory.

The shift in cognitive science from studying the mind in isolation to looking at how minds interact in a network is revolutionary, Stolk says. That’s why the consortium’s affiliation with researchers in such fields as sociology, anthropology, economics, computer science, and mathematics, where macro networks are at the core of their work, is vital, he says.

Chang recalls that at the time of the conversation with Wheatley between events at a conference, the idea of studying interacting minds was rarely discussed in the field.

“The idea of shifting analysis from one person to dyads, or groups of people, and that this might be an entity in itself, which you could never really understand by looking at one person alone, was not really part of the discussion in the field at the time,” he says. The chance to explore these questions was a determining factor in Chang’s decision to accept a faculty position at Dartmouth, he says.

The research has potential benefits on many levels, from personal relationships, to work satisfaction, to physical and mental health, to the social and political sphere, Thornton says.

“There is so much division right now. Our society is incredibly polarized, and we don’t know even on a personal level why individuals connect—why some people have great work relationships or personal relationships and others seem to really struggle to get along,” Thornton says. “If we can figure out what’s at work in these interactions, we can live lives that are happier and build societies that are healthier.”

The consortium is also developing teaching resources for undergraduate and graduate study such as an online textbook, DartBrains, introducing the basics of neuroimaging data and Python programming; a course on neuroimaging analysis methods called Naturalistic Data Analysis; and a 10-day intensive summer course for graduate and postdoctoral students using cutting-edge analysis methods to study a particular research topic that integrates the disciplines of cognitive, social, and systems neuroscience titled Methods in Neuroscience at Dartmouth, or MIND.

Chang says these resources will help bring new scholars into the field and expand the research into the wider world.

This vision of Dartmouth as a hub for an innovative and expanding field in the study of psychology and brain science was supported early on by President Philip J. Hanlon ’77, Wheatley says. He made sure the funding and resources were there to make it happen.

“The work and vision of Professors Wheatley and Chang and the other members of the consortium are truly extraordinary and I couldn’t be prouder that Dartmouth is basecamp for this important and world-changing work,” says President Hanlon.

“It really is a massive shift for these fields,” Wheatley says. “For over a century, to go from the model of how does ‘the mind,’ in the singular, work, to an understanding that minds in interaction might behave differently—that our minds don’t just exist in a social context, but are constituted by it. Understanding how that works is going to be the next big thing.”

Additional funding for research and programming at the consortium is provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, The Dutch Research Council , and the Santa Fe Institute.

Bill Platt