Thalia Wheatley on the Brain, the Self, and a Sense of Wonder

The associate professor says finding answers to three particular questions would make her very happy.

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is part of an ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Why do you connect with some people and not with others? How can you feel that you really understand someone, only to discover that you're wrong? Thalia Wheatley, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, strives to answer these questions and other mysteries of human emotion by “looking under the hood” at how the brain governs social thought and behavior. Wheatley earned her MA and PhD in social psychology from the University of Virginia and came to Dartmouth in 2006. Recently, she spoke with Dartmouth Now about the young field of social neuroscience, delight, and the three questions she'd most love to find answers to.

You’re an expert in the neural systems underlying social intelligence. Can you elaborate?
Basically I’m interested in understanding how people interact with and understand each other, how they are aware of their own mental states and the mental states of others, their emotions and intentions. I study the brain computations that enable us to interact and navigate through this beautifully complex social world.

What brought you to Dartmouth?
After my PhD in social psych, I wanted to understand the brain, so I did a neuroimaging postdoc where I learned fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique to look at a healthy brain in action). This was when the field of social neuroscience was just beginning, and Dartmouth’s psych department was the first place in the United States, if not the world, to offer the position of social neuroscientist. That’s what I wanted to do, so I applied.

Describe a day at Wheatley Lab.
What I love about the lab is that the students determine the research. Right now we have a study in collaboration with Tuck to look at how people's brains differ depending on the positions they hold in their social network. There's also a project looking at the brain activity of people who are friends, and one on how the brain understands emotion in music and movement.

Another project looks at what people’s pupils do when they're attending to the same information, their conversation, for example. It turns out their pupils synchronize, and sort of dance together. That's a good marker of shared experience.

The lab is buzzing with many different research studies, all investigating how people understand and connect with each other.

Who better to ask than a neuroscientist: What is the self?
That’s the question that got me into science: What is a self? How is it that I feel like I’m me? Our intuition is that we have a self and it exists as long as we are alive, or after life, too, if you’re religious. But we don’t understand what it is, whether it changes, how the brain creates it. We know almost nothing about the self, but I find it incredibly fascinating.

You’ve said it is your belief that free will is probably an illusion.
I think free will is most likely to be an illusion, but the agnostic part is that we know so little about how the brain works. What we do know is that there's a lot of unconscious processing going on, and what we can be conscious of at any moment is such a small amount of information. And what we do become conscious of seems to be the product of antecedent unconscious activity, so it seems very difficult to figure out how the conscious self could do anything causal—how we could have conscious free will. That said, there is a lot more scientific work to do.

Lets talk about teaching. Do you have a favorite class?
The class that’s my baby, for undergrads, anyway, is social psychology. It’s all about what makes people tick and conformity and obedience and aggression and prejudice. Students really like it.

I imagine the class covers some pretty odd mental landscapes. Can you give an example?
Milgram, which is the study that showed that the average person will shock someone else to death just because a guy in a white lab coat asks them to. That’s always an eye opener.

Why would a human being do that?
It turns out it’s very difficult to say no to authority, especially if you’ve started a pattern of obeying incrementally larger requests and you don’t have a lot of time to think. The basic message of the course, the hope of the course, is that by showing students how they’re influenced in ways they don’t realize—by other people, by the environment—they will pay attention and become more sophisticated about this in real life.

You and a colleague in computer science are starting work on a book about delight as an emotion. What gives you delight in your own life?
My kids for one. They’re 8 and 10. The great thing about kids—and something that is going to figure into the book— is how children spend their lives in delight mode, learning new things all the time, and for the first time. They walk around being delighted by this leaf and that flower. We lose that a little bit as adults, but then you do find even elderly people who seem to have held onto delight, and that’s interesting to me.

What is one question in your field that you would like to answer?
But there are so many.

OK, how about your top three?
All right, let's go with: What is a self? Why do we dream? And how do we connect to people? It would be better if I helped find the answers—that would be really fun—but barring that, if on my deathbed I could time travel to the future to find out the answers to those questions, I would be very, very happy.

You have said in a previous interview you used to be religious, but no longer are. Is that a byproduct of your work—where the self, and free will, and even finding a soul mate may all be a function of brain activity? In other words, has your research diminished your sense of wonder?
Honestly, no. It’s just displaced it from God or belief in a soul to something more of this world. How are neurons allowing us to have this conversation? That’s just incredible, right? And there’s so much going on at this very moment. There are some neurons making sure I don’t fall out of my chair; there are other neurons gauging my salt intake; and others that are operating at a much higher level about this conversation, considering the intentions and goals of both parties involved.

You discover some little piece of this big puzzle, and it’s such a joy. So no, I don’t think I’ve lost any sense of wonder. It’s just now shifted to science.