In cognitive psychology “theory of mind” refers to a cognitive skill where children starting at age 4 begin to understand what is in other people’s mind. The cognitive process of recognizing mental states like beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, absence of information, lack of knowledge etc. in one’s own mind as well as in others’ mind is called theory of mind. It is the individual’s ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own. The theory of mind is a cognitive process; not a psychological or philosophical theory on the mind. The cognitive process of presuming that others have a mind is termed a theory of mind because each human can only intuit the existence of his or her own mind through introspection, and no one has direct access to the mind of another. So, it is a theory; but it is reality.
It is assumed that others have minds by analogy with one’s own mind. This cognitive process is based on the reciprocal nature of the social interaction as observed in jointly attending to an event, the functional use of language, and understanding others’ emotions and actions. Having the theory mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. If a person does not have fully fledged theory of mind it indicates cognitive impairment or developmental anomaly.
Empathy and theory of mind
The concept of empathy is related to the theory of mind. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. One may need to have a certain amount of empathy before she/he is able to feel compassion. “An individual has a theory of mind if he imputes mental states to himself and others. A system of inferences of this kind is properly viewed as a theory because such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others. As to the mental states the chimpanzee may infer, consider those inferred by our own species, for example, or , as well as , and so forth.”(David Premack and Guy Woodruff (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral andBrain Sciences,1, pp 515-526)
"False belief task" to test the theory of mind
|"False belief task"|
The Sally–Annie test is a psychological test, used in developmental psychology to measure a child's social cognitive ability to attribute false beliefs to others (Wimmer & Perner, 1983). In the test process, after introducing the dolls, the child is asked the control question of recalling their names, Sally and Annie (the Naming Question). A short skit is then enacted; Sally takes a candy and hides it in her basket. She then 'leaves' the room and goes for a walk. While Sally is away and therefore unknown to her, Annie takes the candy out of Sally's basket and puts it in the box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question, the Belief Question: 'Where will Sally look for the candy?'
For the children to 'pass' this test they must answer the Belief Question correctly, by indicating that Sally believes that the candy is in her own basket, continuous with her perspective although not with the child's own. If the child cannot take an alternative perspective, they will indicate that Sally has cause to believe—as they do—that the candy has moved. To pass, the children have to show that Sally has her own beliefs that may not correlate with reality. Children under the age of four, along with most autistic children (of older ages), mistakenly think that Sally, the hider, will know that the candy had been moved from the basket to the box. By four years of age the child can appreciate that Sally has a false mental representation of the situation that is false belief, and will look in the basket where she had hidden the candy.
Theory of Mind deficits
Theory of mind impairment results in a condition known as mind-blindness. This means that individuals with Theory of Mind impairment would have a hard time seeing things from any other perspective than their own. Individuals who experience a theory of mind deficit have difficulty determining the intentions of others, lack understanding of how their behavior affects others. They have trouble understanding the role that mental states play in predicting another person’s behaviour and in recognizing the mental states of other; many avoid eye contact and interactions with others. Failures social communications are a major feature of autism. Theory of Mind deficits have been observed in people with autism spectrum disorders, people with schizophrenia, people with attention deficit disorder, persons under the influence of alcohol and narcotics, sleep-deprived persons, and persons who are experiencing severe emotional or physical pain.
Where is theory of mind situated in the brain?
A study with patients suffering from a lesion of the junction between the temporal lobe and parietal lobe reported that they have difficulty with some theory of mind tasks like false belief task described earlier. This shows that theory-of-mind abilities are associated with specific parts of the human brain. However, the fact that the medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction are necessary for theory of mind tasks does not imply that these regions are specific to that function. Tempero-parietal Junction and media prefrontal cortex may subserve more general functions necessary for theory of mind.
The monkey and theory of mindCognitive Neuroscientist V S Ramachandran wrote: “The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade.” (MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the drivingforce behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution)
Research by Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti has shown that some sensorimotor neurons, which are referred to as mirror neurons, first discovered in the premotor cortex of rhesus monkeys, may be involved in understanding actions of other monkeys. Single-electrode recording revealed that these neurons fired when a monkey performed an action and when the monkey viewed another monkey carrying out the same task. Similarly, functional MRI studies with human participants have shown brain regions containing mirror neurons are active when one person sees another person's goal-directed action. These data have led some authors to suggest that mirror neurons may provide the basis for theory of mind in the brain. David Premack and Guy Woodruff are of the view that chimpanzees definitely have theory of mind.