Fact sheet on theory of mind in the context of Autism and Asperger's syndrome


In recent years, the phrase "theory of mind" has more commonly been used to refer to a specific cognitive capacity: the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.[1]

General category usage of theory of mind

In functionalist theories, functionalists such as Georges Rey explore computational theories of mind[2] that are independent of the physical instantiation of any particular mind.In brain-mind identity theories, biologists such as Gerald Edelman are concerned with the details of how brain activity produces mind and work within the confines of the identity theory of mind.[3]

Philosophical roots of Theory of Mind

Contemporary discussions of Theory of Mind have their roots in philosophical debate—most broadly, from the time of Descartes’ "Second Meditation," which set the groundwork for considering the science of the mind. Most prominent recently are two contrasting approaches, in the philosophical literature, to theory of mind: theory-theory and simulation theory. The theory-theorist imagines a veritable theory—"folk psychology"—used to reason about others' minds. The theory is developed automatically and innately, though instantiated through social interactions.[9] The mental states attributed to others are unobservable—theoretical notions that explain and predict behavior in the same way that doctors interpret abnormal blotches on an x-ray as cancerous tumors—and yet knowable by intuition or insight.


On the other hand, simulation theory suggests Theory of Mind is not, at its core, theoretical. Two kinds of simulationism have been proposed.[10] The first simulation theory suggests that each person simulates being in another's shoes, extrapolating from each one's own mental experience. The second kind of simulation theory proposes that each person comes to know her own and others' minds through what Gordon[11] names a logical "ascent routine" which answers questions about mental states by re-phrasing the question as a metaphysical one. For example, if Zoe asks Pam, "Do you think that dog wants to play with you?", Pam would ask herself, "Does that dog want to play with me?" to determine her own response. She could equally well ask that to answer the question of what Zoe might think.


One of the differences between the two theories that have influenced psychological consideration of Theory of Mind is that theory-theory describes Theory of Mind as a detached theoretical process that is an innate feature, whereas simulation theory portrays Theory of Mind as a kind of knowledge that allows one to mimic the mental state of another person. These theories continue to inform the definitions of theory of mind at the heart of scientific Theory of Mind investigation.


Autism and theory of mind

There has also been speculation that certain humans fail to progress through the normal cognitive developmental stages that lead to acquisition of a theory of mind. In 1985 Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie and Uta Frith published an article called "Does the autistic child have a 'theory of mind'?" in which it was suggested that children with autism have particular difficulties with tasks requiring the child to understand another person's beliefs. These difficulties persist when children are matched for verbal skills (Happe, 1995, Child Development) and have been taken as a key feature of autism.


Many autistic individuals have severe difficulty assigning mental states to others, and they seem to lack theory of mind capabilities.[25] Researchers who study the relationship between autism and theory of mind attempt to explain the connection in a variety of ways. One account assumes that theory of mind plays a role in the attribution of mental states to others and in childhood pretend play.[26] According to Leslie,[27] theory of mind is the capacity to mentally represent thoughts, beliefs, and desires, regardless of whether or not the circumstances involved are real. This might explain why autistic individuals show extreme deficits in both theory of mind and pretend play. However, Hobson proposes a social-affective justification,[28] which suggests that an autistic person’s deficits in theory of mind result from a distortion in understanding and responding to emotions. He suggests that typically developing human beings, unlike individuals with autism, are born with a set of skills (such as social referencing ability) which will later enable them to comprehend and react to other people’s feelings. Other scholars emphasize that autism involves a specific developmental delay, so that children with the impairment vary in their deficiencies, because they experience difficulty in different stages of growth. Very early setbacks can alter proper advancement of joint-attention behaviors, which may lead to a failure to form a full theory of mind.[29]


Theory of mind development

Earlier in the twentieth century, Piaget articulated a view with similarities to Theory of Mind: that in early childhood egocentrism, a child does not understand that others’ views and thoughts differ from his or her own.[12] There is now general agreement among researchers that human children pass tests of theory of mind much earlier than they leave Piaget's egocentric stage—by the age of 3 or 4 years. There is considerable disagreement regarding which behaviors necessarily indicate the presence of a developing theory of mind in young (1- to 3-year-old) humans. Much research focuses on investigating behaviors which may be precursors to the development of a fully functional theory of mind. These behaviors include joint attention, gaze following, proto-declarative pointing, comprehending objects' animacy, and awareness of others as intentional agents.[13]


Gaze following—following another's gaze with one's own—is seen in infants by about the age of six months, while markers of joint attention, including shared mutual gaze, appear later, around the age of 9-12 months. Additionally, behaviors such as proto-declarative pointing—pointing in order to draw another's attention to an object in the environment—also emerge around the end of the first year.[14] This ability to engage in shared attention is considered to be crucial for a child to learn about his or her social environment. A longitudinal study conducted by Charman et al. (2000)[15] demonstrated that children who displayed the highest rates of joint attention at 20 months were generally the same children who scored highest on theory of mind tasks at 44 months. Some researchers believe that these behaviors and social referencing (using the emotional response of others to determine one's own response to a novel object or situation) suggest that children are beginning to have an awareness of adults' internal, mental functioning.


An ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects represents another step along the path toward development of a theory of mind. In studies conducted to answer the question of when people attribute animacy to objects, Tremoulet and Feldman (2000)[16] demonstrated that objects that were perceived to be most animate were those whose motion appeared to violate laws of Newtonian physics or those moving objects that appeared to have a goal. (Most normally developing humans will acquire the ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects.)


After learning to define certain objects as animate, children can then begin to develop the concept of other beings as intentional "agents." An agent is an object that acts in a goal-directed manner, essentially planning actions and then carrying them out in the most efficient way possible in order to attain some end. Using a habituation procedure, Gergely et al. (1995)[17] found that 12-month-old children were able to demonstrate an understanding that intentional agents act in rational ways. Meltzoff and Moore (1999)[18] have shown that children as young as several hours or days old may mimic simple behaviors, which may be part of a developing Theory of Mind; other researchers have argued that 14- to 18-month-old infants are capable of understanding intention and so have a basic comprehension of others as intentional and mental agents.[19][20] In a study of 18 month olds' ability to understand the intentions of others, Meltzoff found that children mimic intentional, but not unintentional, behaviors of (adult) humans in their environment, and that they imitate considerably less often when a machine is performing the behavior. This experiment suggests that infants younger than two years of age may be considering the intentions of others and interpret humans, and not machines, as intentional beings.


Empirical investigation of Theory of Mind

Whether children younger than 3 or 4 years old may have a theory of mind is a topic of debate among researchers. It is a challenging question, due to the difficulty of assessing what pre-linguistic children understand about others and the world. Tasks used in research into the development of Theory of Mind must take into account the umwelt—(the German word Umwelt means "environment" or "surrounding world")—of the pre-verbal child.


False-belief task

The canonical test of Theory of Mind ability is the false-belief task. One of the most important milestones in theory of mind development is gaining the ability to attribute false belief: that is, to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are wrong. To do this, it is suggested, one must understand how knowledge is formed, that people’s beliefs are based on their knowledge, that mental states can differ from reality, and that people’s behavior can be predicted by their mental states. Numerous versions of the false-belief task have been developed, based on the initial task done by Wimmer and Perner (1983).[21]


In the most common version of the false-belief task (often called the ‘Sally-Anne’ task), children are told or shown a story involving two characters. For example, in one version, the child is shown two dolls, Sally and Anne, playing with a marble. The dolls put away the marble in a box, and then Sally leaves. Anne takes the marble out and plays with it again, and after she is done, puts it away in a different box. Sally returns and the child is then asked where Sally will look for the marble. The child passes the task if she answers that Sally will look in the first box where she put the marble; the child fails the task if she answers that Sally will look in the second box, where the child knows the marble is hidden, even though Sally cannot know, since she did not see it hidden there. In order to pass the task, the child must be able to understand that another’s mental representation of the situation is different from their own, and the child must be able to predict behavior based on that understanding.


The false-belief task has, in a number of studies, been modified so as to make certain that children who fail the tasks do so because they lack the Theory of Mind ability required, and not because the tasks are too cognitively demanding for them. Low-verbal false-belief tasks have tried to eliminate the possibility that the language of the task is too complicated for young or language-delayed children to understand. Such tasks often employ thought bubbles rather than explicit words to show a character thinking. The results of research using false-belief tasks have been fairly consistent: most normally-developing children are unable to pass the tasks until around the age of three or four. The conclusion from this research has thus been that most children do not begin to have any mature theory of mind abilities until this time. Passing these tasks does not necessarily mean that a child has a theory of mind like that of an adult—in fact, studies with mental verb acquisition show that at the age when children can pass the false-belief task, they still have difficulty in understanding differences between mental states—but being able to pass them is an indication that a child has developed the kinds of understanding, like false-belief, necessary for gaining adult Theory of Mind abilities, and that they are on their way to an adult Theory of Mind. Inability to pass the false-belief task–and thus the apparent inability to understand false belief–at an age when one is expected to be able to do so is usually taken as an indication of a developmental delay or other disruption that has affected Theory of Mind development.


Appearance-reality task

Other tasks have been developed to try to solve the problems inherent in the false-belief task. In the "appearance-reality", or "Smarties" task, experimenters ask children what they believe to be the contents of a box that looks as though it holds a candy called "Smarties." After the child guesses (usually) "Smarties," each is shown that the box in fact contained pencils. The experimenter then re-closes the box and asks the child what she thinks another person, who has not been shown the true contents of the box, will think is inside. The child passes the task if she responds that another person will think that there are "Smarties" in the box, but fails the task if she responds that another person will think that the box contains pencils. Gopnik & Astington (1988) found that children pass this test at age four or five years.


Other tasks

The "false-photograph" task[22][23] is another task that serves as a measure of theory of mind development. In this task, children must reason about what is represented in a photograph that differs from the current state of affairs. Within the false-photograph task, there is either a location or identity change.[24] In the location-change task, the child is told a story about a character that puts an object in one location (e.g., chocolate in a green cupboard) and takes a Polaroid photograph of the scene. While the photograph is developing, the object is moved to a different location (e.g., to a blue cupboard). The child is then asked two control questions, “When we first took the picture, where was the object? Where is the object now?” The subject is also asked a false-photograph question, “Where is the object in the picture?” The child passes the task if she correctly identifies the location of the object in the picture and the actual location of the object at the time of the question.


In order to make tasks more accessible for young children, non-human animals, and autistic individuals, theory of mind research has begun employing non-verbal paradigms. One category of tasks uses a preferential looking paradigm, with looking time as the dependent variable. For instance, Woodward found that 9-month-old infants preferred to look at behaviors performed by a human hand than those made by an inanimate hand-like object.


Theory of mind in the brain

With the advent of neuroimaging techniques, particular brain regions that seem to be important for theory of mind have been identified by researchers including Chris Frith[30] and Rebecca Saxe.[31] These studies identify the medial frontal cortex, temporal poles and temporoparietal junction as the brain regions which are most active when people perform theory of mind tasks.


A paper published in 2004 by Samson and colleagues in Nature Neuroscience [32] shows that people who have a stroke which damages the temporoparietal junction of the brain (between the temporal lobe and parietal lobe have difficulty with some theory of mind tasks. This shows that theory of mind abilities are associated with specific parts of the human brain.


Mirror Neurons

Recent research by Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti (reviewed in [33]) has shown that some visuomotor neurons, which are referred to as mirror neurons, first discovered in the premotor cortex of rhesus monkeys, may be involved in theory of mind abilities. Single-electrode recording revealed that these neurons fired when a monkey performed an action and when the monkey viewed another agent carrying out the same task. Similarly, fMRI studies with human participants have shown brain regions which are assumed to contain mirror neurons are active when one person sees another person's goal directed action.[34] These data have been used to suggest that mirror neurons provide the basis for theory of mind in the brain, and to support Simulation Theory (see above) [35]


However, there is also evidence against the link between mirror neurons and theory of mind. First, macaque monkeys have mirror neurons but do not seem to have a 'human-like' capacity to understand theory of mind. Second, fMRI studies of theory of mind typically activate the medial frontal cortex, temporal poles and temporoparietal junction,[36] but these brain areas are not part of the human mirror neuron system. Some investigators believe that mirror neurons merely facilitate learning through imitation and may provide a precursor to the development of Theory of Mind.


Non-human theory of mind

As the title of Premack and Woodruff's 1978 article "Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?" indicates, it is also important to ask if other animals besides humans have a genetic endowment and social environment that allows them to acquire a theory of mind in the same way that human children do. This is a contentious issue because of the problem of inferring from animal behavior the existence of thinking, of the existence of a concept of self or self-awareness, or of particular thoughts.


Non-human research still has a major place in this field, however, and is especially useful in illuminating which nonverbal behaviors signify components of theory of mind, and in pointing to possible stepping points in the evolution of what many claim to be a uniquely human aspect of social cognition. While it is difficult to study human-like theory of mind and mental states in species which we do not yet describe as "minded" at all, and about whose potential mental states we have an incomplete understanding, researchers can focus on simpler components of more complex capabilities. For example, many researchers focus on animals' understanding of intention, gaze, perspective, or knowledge (or rather, what another being has seen). Part of the difficulty in this line of research is that observed phenomena can often be explained as simple stimulus-response learning, as it is in the nature of any theorizers of mind to have to extrapolate internal mental states from observable behavior. Recently, most non-human theory of mind research has focused on monkeys and great apes, who are of most interest in the study of the evolution of human social cognition.


There has been some controversy over the interpretation of evidence purporting to show theory of mind ability—or inability—in animals. Two examples serve as demonstration: first, Povinelli et. al (1990)[37] presented chimpanzees with the choice of two experimenters from which to request food: one who had seen where food was hidden, and one who, by virtue of one of a variety of mechanisms (having a bucket or bag over his head; a blindfold over his eyes; or being turned away from the baiting) does not know, and can only guess. They found that the animals failed in most cases to differentially request food from the "knower." By contrast, Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001)[38] found that subordinate chimpanzees were able to use the knowledge state of dominant rival chimpanzees to determine which container of hidden food they approached.


Tomasello and like-minded colleagues who originally argued that great apes did not have theory of mind have since reversed their position. Povinelli and his colleagues, however, maintain that Tomasello's group has misinterpreted the results of their experiments. They point out that most evidence in support of great ape theory of mind involves naturalistic settings to which the apes may have already adapted through past learning. Their "reinterpretation hypothesis" explains away all current evidence supporting attribution of mental states to others in chimpanzees as merely evidence of risk-based learning; that is, the chimpanzees learn through experience that certain behaviors in other chimpanzees have a probability of leading to certain responses, without necessarily attributing knowledge or other intentional states to those other chimpanzees. They therefore propose testing theory of mind abilities in great apes in novel, and not naturalistic settings. Kristin Andrews takes the reinterpretation hypothesis one step further, arguing that it implies that even the well-known false-belief test used to test children's theory of mind is susceptible to being interpreted as a result of learning.


References and notes

1 Premack, D. G. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.
2"The Computational Theory of Mind" - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
3"Identity theory of mind" - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
4 Premack, D. G. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.
5 Courtin, C. (2000) The impact of sign language on the cognitive development of deaf children: The case of theories of mind. Cognition, 77,25-31.
6 Courtin, C., & Melot, A.-M. (2005) Metacognitive development of deaf children: Lessons from the appearance-reality and false belief tasks. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5, 266-276.
7 Premack, D. G. and Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.
8 Premack, D. G. and Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.
9 Carruthers, P. (1996). Simulation and self-knowledge: a defence of the theory-theory. In P. Carruthers & P.K. Smith, Eds. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
10 Gordon, R.M. (1996). 'Radical' simulationism. In P. Carruthers & P.K. Smith, Eds. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
11 Gordon, R.M. (1996). 'Radical' simulationism. In P. Carruthers & P.K. Smith, Eds. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
12 Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1948/1967). The Child's Conception of Space. New York: W.W. Norton.
13 Terje Falck-Ytter, Gustaf Gredebäck & Claes von Hofsten, Infants predict other people's action goals, Nature Neuroscience 9 (2006)
14 Barresi, J. and Moore, C. (1996). Intentional relations and social understanding. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19,107-122.
15 Charman, T., Baron-Cohen, S., Sweetenham, J., Baird, G., Cox, A., & Drew, A. (2000). Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognitive Development, 15, 481-498.
16 Tremoulet, P.D., & Feldman, J. (2000). Perception of animacy from the motion of a single object. Perception, 29, 943-951.
17 Gergely, G., Nadasdy, Z., Csibra, G., & Biro, S. (1995). Taking the intentional stance at 12 months of age. Cognition, 56, 165-193.
18 Meltzoff, A.N., & Moore, M.K. (1999). Persons and representation: Why infant imitation is important for theories of human development. In J. Nadel & G. Butterworth, Eds. Imitation in Infancy: Cambridge Studies in Cognitive Perceptual Development, 9-35. New York: Cambridge University Press.
19 Carpenter, M., Akhtar, N., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Fourteen- through 18-month-old infants differentially imitate intentional and accidental actions. Infant Behavior & Development, 21, 315-330.
20 Meltzoff, A.N. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children. Developmental Psychology, 31, 838-850.
21 Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children's understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103-128.
22 Zaitchik, D. (1990). When representations conflict with reality: the preschooler’s problem with false beliefs and “false” photographs. Cognition, 35, 41-68.
23 Leslie, A., & Thaiss, L. (1992). Domain specificity in conceptual development. Cognition, 43, 225-51.
24 Sabbagh, M.A., & Moses L.J. (2006). Executive functioning and preschoolers’ understanding of false beliefs, false photographs, and false signs. Child Development, 77(4), 1034-1049.
25 Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). Precursors to a theory of mind: Understanding attention in others. In A. Whiten, Ed., Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development, and simulation of everyday mindreading (233-251). Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
26 Leslie, A. M. (1991). Theory of mind impairment in autism. In A. Whiten, Ed., Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development, and simulation of everyday mindreading. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
27 Leslie, A. M. (1991). Theory of mind impairment in autism. In A. Whiten, Ed., Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development, and simulation of everyday mindreading. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
28 Hobson, R.P. (1995). Autism and the development of mind. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.
29 Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). Precursors to a theory of mind: Understanding attention in others. In A. Whiten, Ed., Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development, and simulation of everyday mindreading (233-251). Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
30 Frith U, Frith CD. Development and neurophysiology of mentalizing. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003 Mar 29;358(1431):459-73.
31 http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146%2Fannurev.psych.55.090902.142044
32 Samson D, Apperly IA, Chiavarino C, Humphreys GW. Left temporoparietal junction is necessary for representing someone else's belief. Nat Neurosci. 2004 May;7(5):499-500.
33 Rizzolatti G, Craighero L. The mirror-neuron system. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2004;27:169-92.
34 Iacoboni, M., Molnar-Szakacs, I., Gallese, V., Buccino, G., Mazziotta, J.C. (2005). Grasping the intentions of others with one's own mirror neuron system. PLoS Biology, 3(3), 529-535.
35 Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in Cognitive Science, 2(12), 493-501.
36 Frith U, Frith CD. Development and neurophysiology of mentalizing. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003 Mar 29;358(1431):459-73.
37 Povinelli, D.J., Nelson, K.E., & Boysen, S.T. (1990). Inferences about guessing and knowing by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 104, 203-210.
38 Hare, B., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2001). Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know and do not know? Animal Behavior, 61, 139-151.
Excerpts taken from: Davis, E. (2007) Mental Verbs in Nicaraguan Sign Language and the Role of Language in Theory of Mind. Undergraduate senior thesis, Barnard College, Columbia University.
Students of the Spring 2007 course Theory of Mind and Intentionality at Barnard College (Columbia University) contributed extensively to this page.


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"Theory of mind" is commonly linked with Autism Spectrum Disorders and refers to a specific cognitive capacity: the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own