Theory of the mind: what is it and what does it tell us about us?

When you think of all these mental faculties unique to human beings and no other species, it is very easy to think of language, the ability to learn all kinds of things, or the ability to solve complex mathematical problems.

These are easily observable human characteristics, but they are not the only ones that we enjoy exclusively. There is another, much more discreet, thanks to which our social relations are richer. This ability was called Theory of Mind.

What is the theory of mind?

Broadly speaking, the theory of mind is the ability to be aware of the differences between one’s own perspective and that of others.

In other words, this faculty allows us to consider the mental states of other subjects without assuming that these ideas or thoughts are like those of oneself. A person who has developed theory of mind can attribute ideas, desires, and beliefs to other agents with whom they interact. And all of this automatically, almost unconsciously.

A hierarchy of mental states

Very often we are exposed to situations where we have to imagine what someone else is thinking. In turn, that person can assume, from the information they have about us, what we think we are thinking, and all of this can also be deduced by us and the other person in a theoretically infinite loop. A hierarchy of mental states which contain: i think you think i believe

The Theory of Spirit takes second place in this hierarchy (I think you believe it), and is the seed from which the ability to progress to other more complex categories is born.

How is theory of mind developed? The 4-year threshold

Humans are probably the only species in which their members can think of others as intentional agentsIn other words, beings with their own interests. This means that from an early age, the vast majority of humans are able to distinguish between an action and the purpose for which that action is intended, even if the latter has not been clearly revealed. Outraged, in a few months of life, all people learn to ask themselves where they focus their attention on others, And therefore can claim this attention for oneself or for something that is close.

These changes in the cognitive development of babies begin towards the end of the first year and are part of what is called the nine month revolution, Hence emanate skills that have built on each other and promote the creation of complex social behaviors, such as simulated play, which requires understanding that the other is acting using a banana as if he It was about a telephone, or an imitation, in which the child learns from the actions of the adult and is able to understand the purpose of each of the movements that he sees.

The theory of mind appears around the age of 4 and is built on the foundations of all these capacities resulting from the revolution of nine months, But intervenes in more abstract and refined mental processes. Thus, all those who develop The Theory of Mind view others not only as intentional agents, but also as mental agents, with a whole series of complex psychological states of their own. Among these new mental states attributed to others are, for example, desires and beliefs.

The experience of false belief

The classic way to find out if a child has developed theory of mind is false belief test. It is a test that can only be solved correctly if one is able to differentiate one’s own knowledge of the environment from what another person thinks about it. Additionally, it is an exercise that can be used to help detect cases of autism spectrum disorder, as people who exhibit symptoms associated with autism tend to show little or no theory of mind. .

In an example of this test, the psychologist manipulates two dolls to form a small story in which everything happens in front of the attentive gaze of the tested child. First, the first doll shows a toy and then shows how to store it in a nearby chest. Then the doll disappears from the scene and the second doll appears, which takes the toy out of the trunk and puts it, for example, in a backpack that is on the floor. At this point, the child is asked: “When the first doll comes back into the room, where is the first place he will look for the toy?”.

Normally, boys and girls under the age of four will not give an answer, as they will believe that the first doll has the same information as them and will look for it in the backpack first. However, by the age of four, most give a correct answer, proof that they have made the switch to theory of mind and have instead abandoned a perception of reality egocentric.

A short documentary to better understand this theory

Below you can see a video showing an example of a false belief test applied to the theory of mind detection:

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