The modular theory of mind: what it is and what it explains about the brain

Theory of mind tells us that specialized neurons in our brains allow us to generate hypotheses about how other people’s minds work. This allows us to anticipate the behavior and intentionality of the other and, from there, to orient our behavior. Likewise, it is an important skill in acquiring knowledge and behaviors, and has been given essential value in adaptive terms.

But how does this happen? The modular theory suggests that the mentalization process described above is possible because our mind works through different modules. We will see below What is modular theory of mind and how it explains our cognitive processes.

    Modular Theory of Mind: The Psyche as a Set of Processes

    Among other things, the more traditional theory of mind approach suggested that the mind is a versatile tool, capable of being activated when faced with any type of task or information. Thus, whether or not we are presented with a logical-mathematical, linguistic, physical or social problem, our mind (as a unitary system) sets in motion mechanisms of perception and resolution of the problem.

    Faced with this conception, the modular approach maintains that the mind is not a unitary or monolithic tool. Rather, it is a set of tools, each one specialized in a specific problem, task or piece of information. Beyond being a unique and versatile tool, the mind is designed as a set of processes and systems specializing in solving different types of problems (García García, 2008).

    As such, each process would have a certain structure and competence. And for this very reason, each process is designed as a different “module”. Thus, the mind would be constructed by a set of modules specialized in a particular type of process or activity.

      Development and history

      In 1986, the philosopher and psycholinguist Jerry Fodor propose that the mind be structured in “innate modules”. He defined these as input systems (i.e. perceptual systems). According to Fodor, the modules operate independently and specialize in one area. And what’s more, they are automatic and fast processes.

      But our mind is not only made up of different modules encapsulated and independent of each other. Contrary to this, Fodor also proposed that in the middle of the modules there is a central system, the task is to receive the information from the input systems (i.e. the different modules). In other words, there is a central system that is responsible for integrating and recording the information that each module processes, and from there, we can generate complex processes and functions such as memory.

      This is how Fodor developed the concept of “modularity”. Through this he explained how perceptual and cognitive processes work as a set of modules with specialized tasks. One example where the modular theory of mind is reflected is the theory of multiple intelligences, and another is the metaphor of the computer processor applied to the theory of mind.

      Does our mind work like a Swiss army knife?

      One of the most widely used forms in theory of mind to explain the modular approach is the Swiss Army Knife. It was proposed in 1994 by psychologist Leda Cosmides and anthropologist John Tooby, Both specialize in evolutionary psychology.

      What they suggest is that traditionally the theory of mind held that it was behind it worked like an ordinary razor that we can take with us to solve any problem, from opening to a tin can cut to a piece of bread. In contrast, the Modular Theory of Mind argues that the latter functions like a “Swiss Army Knife,” which is also a manual tool, but is made up of different tools with different functions.

      It can have a knife, scissors, razors of different sizes, a flashlight, among others; and each is useful for specifically solving certain problems (and not others). In fact, its usefulness is precisely as follows: extreme specialization of each component, Which allows you to effectively solve specific problems.

      The physical bases of mental modules

      According to this theory, the modular structure and organization would be the result of a complex phylogenetic process that allowed us to develop different structures and mechanisms. In turn, this development is done in an adaptive wayIn other words, it is a consequence of the constantly changing problems and tasks that our environment presents to us.

      Thus, we generate new and different needs as we develop in a given context, which ends up building various mental modules. The latter, translated into neurophysiological language, corresponds to brain plasticity and the connectionist model which maintains that the information received is stored in neural circuits. Thus, part of the modular theory holds that the physiological basis of nodules is precisely neural clusters and networks; and similarly, the psychophysical basis of modular development would be brain plasticity.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bacáicoa Ganuza, F. (2002). The modular spirit. Journal of Psychodidactics, 13: 1-24.
      • Robbins, P. (2017). Modularity of mind. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed October 3, 2018.Available at
      • García García, I. (2008). Neuropsychology and education. From mirror neurons to theory of mind. Journal of Psychology and Education, 1 (3): 69-89.
      • Gómez Echeverry, I. (2010). Cognitive science, theory of mind and autism. Psychological Thinking, 8 (15): 113-124.

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