theory of mind

What is Theory of Mind? | Concepts, Studies, And Relations

Theory of mind is the cognitive ability to understand the mental state of another person. It can be defined as a kind of thinking about what others might be thinking. A mind-reading of sorts.

It may seem dubious to many but it is what is. We have the superpower ability to think about other’s points of view (which is a superpower because none in the animal kingdom has shown such abilities like ours- at least not with the intensity we do). And for the most part of it- it has made us humane and civilized.

a man thinking sitting on top of a brain
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The concept of the theory of mind has become a part and parcel of our lives. We cannot imagine a life without it. We may not perceive it consciously in our day to day life but we always have access to it.

Fundamentally, there are 3 levels of thinking-

I know what I want

I know what they want

I know what they think I want

The thinking patterns become more convoluted as we move up through the levels. Most animals remain limited to the first 2 levels. But the human race has evolved to a place that our thinking abilities are far superior to our distant animal species like apes.

How Theory of Mind (ToM) Germinates in Children?

As explained by Jean Piaget, children’s mind develops in stages. It is a part of their development from childhood to adolescence. The thinking faculties of a child below 2 years are very simple and do not follow the conservation of matter.

The world perceived by a child of 2 years age is a 2D version of reality. The objects that appear in front of them are their reality. If the object is out of their sight, it ceases to exist in their world of reality. That’s why it is so easy to distract babies to forget about things you don’t want them to play with.

By the age they reach 4 years, they start developing the egocentric mind. The egocentric mind thinks as “I see so do you”. It is quite similar to the egoistic mind of an adult. The difference is- as a child, you don’t have much control over your mind and thoughts, unlike adults.

Coming back to the topic at hand, children develop the theory of mind after 4-5 years of age. Children start understanding that reality is far more complex than their 2D vision. Their metacognitive development process results in changes in thinking: “I can see but that does not guarantee that they can see too”.

This whole transition of child development can be transpired by a test known as a false belief test– a test to understand how a child perceives reality.

False Belief test: Sally-Ann Test

A famous experiment done based on the false belief test is known as the Sally-Ann test. The video given below describes the process of the test.

Check out the video first and we can continue our discussion further. Done?

Sally Ann Test

As seen in the video, while Sally is gone, Ann has replaced the toy. The child didn’t realize that Sally shouldn’t have any idea about Ann’s deed. The children below 3-4 years fail to perceive it. They think “I know what Ann did so Sally knows too.”

However, children above 5 years of age develop the cognitive ability that theory of mind asserts. It is during this period that children start understanding reality in a more congruent manner. In the case of the Sally-Ann test, they can finally have the ability to think in line with “I know but Sally doesn’t as she was not there.”

It is a very interesting cognitive theory to ponder on. Try it with children near you as an experiment and be surprised at how universal the concept is.

Effects of ToM on Children and Adults with Neurological Problems

Both autistic and schizophrenic patients are found to lack the cognitive ability partially or completely.

A comparison among normal students (with healthy cognitive abilities), Down syndrome students and autistic students, was done to study which group passed or failed the false-belief test. The study under Simon Baron-Cohen showed that 86% of Down syndrome students and 85% of typically neurotic students passed the test. However, 80% of autistic children failed the test.

Another study elaborated that the theory of mind has a connection with the intellect of our human brain. Asperger’s patients are found to deal better with situations involving the theory of mind than autistic patients (Autistic patients have an intellectual disability unlike the Aspergers patients). So we can draw a correlation between a person’s intellectual ability with their ability to think about what others might be thinking.

Significance of Theory of mind

brain- theory of mind
Image by DAMIAN NIOLET from Pixabay

There are several benefits that come along with the cognitive ability of ToM. They are-

  1. Understanding others’ point of view
  2. Developing social bond between peers, family and friends
  3. Perceiving others’ emotions, feelings and desires
  4. Feeling of empathy
  5. Helps to cooperate, reciprocate and show civility
  6. Builds trust within a group

Negative Aspects of the Theory of mind

We as humans have become accustomed to the cognitive abilities that we have taken them for granted. It will result in disaster to our human evolution if we are suddenly unable to utilize the theory of mind.

Imagine not able to understand each others’ thoughts and justification for their behaviors. If we start thinking “I think so he thinks”, we will lose our social ability to connect on various dimensions that are higher than just survival and food. There will be no trust, empathy among us to bond for different aspects of our human life- social, culture, language, art, economic, political, etc.

Thus the theory of mind is an important psychological concept that humans need to be ever grateful to nature and to our cognitive evolution. But what happens when we go haywire with our abilities?

More often than not, the theory of mind allows us to expect certain behaviors of people. And the assumptions can go wrong and our feelings can get hurt. Such wrong expectations of thoughts and behaviors from others can cause a huge problem in our social life.

So, how to deal with it? With an awareness of our capabilities and limitations, we can easily improve our social interactions and relationships. We need to become more aware of our expectations and needs.

Effects of ToM on Older people

Though not much research is done on older people for Theory of mind, experts believe that the ability of cognitive thinking reduces in older people- similar to that of children. You must have heard of the saying, ‘As you grow old, you start becoming a child again’. It can be no further from the truth. The higher levels of our thinking faculties are hampered. However, old people still manage to retain empathy and social behaviors.

Is there a link with Language development?

Children develop ToM almost during a similar time when they start learning languages. Can words like ‘think’ and ‘feel’ have an effect on our ability to think what others are thinking and feeling?

Science is in favor of this hypothesis. There is a direct relation we can draw between autistic patients (who don’t develop the theory of mind) and language too. Autistic patients also face problems with speech production, specifically on categorical words like emotions and feelings. Besides, producing human languages is another superpower we humans possess. Is this just a coincidence or does language development impacts our superpower ability?

Let’s leave our discussion on that. Tell me, in the comment section, do you think language can be related to our evolution in thinking?


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Trisha Nandi

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