Theory of mind

Alia Martin PhD (Dr. Martin of Victoria University of Wellington has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Victor W Mark MD, editor. (Dr. Mark of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released November 18, 2010; last updated September 19, 2016; expires September 19, 2019

This article includes discussion of theory of mind, simulation theory, and theory theory. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.

Overview

Theory of mind refers to the cognitive ability to make inferences about others' mental states (eg, beliefs, intentions, and desires) and use them to understand and predict behavior. Theory of mind plays a central role in human social interactions. In this article, the author explains how the concept has emerged and reviews ongoing research into the cognitive mechanisms and neurophysiological bases underlying theory of mind, relations between theory of mind and other cognitive abilities, and clinical applications.

Key points

 

• Theory of mind refers to the cognitive ability to make inferences about others' mental states.

 

• Theory of mind plays a central role in human social interactions.

 

• Findings from imaging and lesion studies indicate that theory of mind reasoning is supported by a widely distributed neural system.

 

• Research on theory of mind has opened new windows into understanding the neuropathological bases of psychiatric and neurologic disorders in which social cognitive and theory of mind skills may be specifically impaired.

Historical note and terminology

Theory of mind refers to the cognitive ability to make inferences about others' mental states (eg, beliefs, intentions, and desires) and use them to understand and predict behavior. The term was initially coined by Premack and Woodruff, who reported an experiment testing whether a chimpanzee could recognize and respond to the goals of an actor struggling to solve staged problems (Premack and Woodruff 1978). After observing videotapes of these problems, the chimpanzee correctly selected photographs that depicted solutions to the actor's implicit desires or goals, as opposed to those that depicted other associated events. Many researchers disagreed that this finding was necessarily reflective of an understanding of mental states, and that many similar results with nonhuman primates might better be explained by making nonmentalistic inferences or learning behavior regularities (Cheney and Seyfarth 1990; Heyes 1998). This controversy sparked a strong interest in how to best test for theory of mind abilities in nonhuman species and very young human children. The “false belief” task became a standard assessment method because predicting that someone will act on their false belief requires the subject to recognize that others have representations of the world that differ from the subject's own.

In a seminal developmental study, Wimmer and Perner investigated young children's understanding of beliefs, finding that children around 5 years of age consistently passed false belief tasks, and children around 3 years of age consistently failed (Wimmer and Perner 1983). These initial experiments in nonhuman primates and children launched an extensive research effort into the theory of mind abilities of these populations over the next 40 years. The current state of evidence from nonhuman primates suggests that they make sophisticated use of social cues, for instance, attending to what others can see or hear, but do not seem to attribute false beliefs in any task used to date (Hare et al 2000; Flombaum and Santos 2005; Kaminski et al 2008; Martin and Santos 2014). In human children, however, a number of studies suggest that very young human infants reason about others' goals, perceptions, and even false beliefs when tested in “implicit” theory of mind tasks that use infants' looking time as a proxy for expectancy-violation (Woodward 1998; Onishi and Baillargeon 2005; Luo and Johnson 2009). There is still debate about the extent to which theory of mind abilities undergo significant conceptual development between infancy and the preschool years, but it seems clear now that at least some theory of mind skills are present very early in life (Caron 2009; Perner and Roessler 2012).

Perhaps because of its wide-ranging application to almost all questions of human social cognition and behavior, theory of mind research has extended well beyond the domains of comparative and developmental psychology. Philosophers and cognitive scientists question the mechanisms underlying these abilities and the types of experiments that can test for a mentalistic rather than behavior-based understanding of behavior. Neurologists and cognitive neuroscientists are interested in the neural bases of various theory of mind skills. Clinicians have investigated differences in theory of mind abilities in individuals with disorders such as autism. Work in all of these research areas have opened new windows for understanding the neuropathological basis of psychiatric and neurologic disorders in which social cognitive and theory of mind skills may be specifically impaired.

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