The Theory of Mind

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.

It wasn't until my son was 15 that we understood that he didn't have a Theory of Mind. He had been kicked out of his theraptetuic boarding school and was back in a therapeutic wilderness program while we found him another program to go to. It was here, at in this wilderness program, that his therapist told us about the”theory of mind” and how he was rigid and not oppositional and things started falling into place. His therapist there shed light on many things. As it turns out, my child does not have bipolar disorder but he lacks a Theory of Mind. This is when you do not understand that other people can have different beliefs and views to yours. Theory of Mind is a social language that somehow my son missed out on learning when he was young. Instead, I have a son who truly believes that everyone does and should think in the same manner as he does. If he finds a joke funny then he believes everyone else does too. If anyone is to believe something different to him then he sees it as an immediate personal rejection. And a terribly unfair one at that.

For example: if a peer says to him, "I really don't like your red sneakers, they really suck." He will translate this to mean, "I hate your sneakers so I hate you and I think you really suck." In his mind this is grossly unfair, to dislike someone for the color of their sneakers, so he will voice this and retaliate, usually by saying something not nice or inappropriate to the peer.

Theory of mind develops gradually, with intuitive social skills appearing in infancy and then reflective social cognition developing during the toddler and preschool years.

Three-year-olds know that different people may want, like and feel different things. By age 4 or 5, children know that people may think different things. They understand that sometimes a person may believe something that is not true but, in that case, what the person does or says is based on the false belief.

There are differences in the rate of typical development that partly depend on factors in the environment, such as family talk and disciplinary strategies, interaction with siblings, story books and pretend play, as well as factors in the child, such as language and cognitive control abilities.

There are consequences to theory-of-mind development that are seen in children’s social competence and success in school.

There are a few wasy in which you can test or measure Theory of Mind:

Level 1 Test

In the experiment, the child is presented with two dolls, Sally (who has a basket) and Anne (who has a box). Sally puts a marble in her basket, and leaves the room. While Sally is away, Anne takes the marble from the basket, and hides it in her box. Finally, Sally returns to the room, and the child is asked three questions:

  • Where will Sally look for her marble? (The “belief” question)

  • Where is the marble really? (The “reality” question)

  • Where was the marble at the beginning? (The “memory” question)

A child with Theory of Mind will realise that Sally doesn't know that Ann has played a trick on her, and will therefore look in her own box for her marble, and discover it missing. But a child lacking in Theory of Mind will only see the situation from her own point of view, and suggest that Sally look for the marble where it actually is: in Ann's box.

Very small children will not be able to guess correctly in this test, since Theory of Mind takes time to develop, but most children should be able to do the test by 6 or 7 years old at the latest and some as young as three years old can. However, it is thought that most children with ASDs will not be able to complete the test.

Level 2 Test

The story is about John and Mary, who are both interested in the location of an ice-cream van. They are both at the park when it is announced that the van will stay in the park for the afternoon. However, when Mary is on her way home and John is still at the park, it is announced in the park that the van will be at the church for the rest of the day. So, Mary does not know that the ice-cream van moved to the church. Where does Mary go when she wants to get an ice cream? If we use our theory of mind capabilities, we would answer that Mary will go to the park. After all, she does not know that the ice- cream van moved to the church. She thinks the van is in the park.

Level 3 Test

When Mary is on her way home, she meets the ice-cream van at a stop light. Mary asks the driver where he is going and he answers that he will be at the church for the rest of the day. Where does John think Mary thinks the ice-cream van will be during the rest of the day? John does not know that Mary knows that the van will be at the church. He believes that Mary believes that the ice-cream van is still at the park. Therefore, we think that John will think that Mary thinks that the ice-cream van is still at the church. This is an example of second-order theory of mind or second-order belief attribution, because we have to access two mental states (John's mental state of Mary's mental state) to answer the question.

Other types of behavior that require theory of mind:

  • Intentionally communicating with others Here, communication refers to the acts undertaken to change the knowledge stateof the listener. A dog who is barking at a cat may not intend to change the knowledge state of the cat, but simply to make the cat run away. To intentionally inform others requires the belief that others have minds that can be informed.

  • Repairing failed communication It requires a theory of mind to understand that a message may not be understood and the message needs to be communicated again in a different way.

  • Teaching others When teaching one wants to change the knowledge state of a less knowledgeable listener.

  • Intentionally persuading others Persuading is changing someone else's belief about something. Although the goal is often to change the behavior of the other, it is realized by changing the belief and intention state of the other.

  • Intentionally deceiving others As above, intentionally deceiving others has as goal to change the belief state of the other. In contrast, an animal with camoflage, whose appearance saves it from being eaten by a predator, is not engaging in a deception that requires theory of mind.

  • Building shared plans and goals When sharing a goal with another person, both must recognize the intention of the other and work out how to coordinate their actions with those of the other to achieve the shared goal. Animals hunting in packs may seem to work together, but often they fail at building shared plans and goals.

  • Intentionally sharing a focus or topic of attention Looking at the same target at the same time is not shared attention if each is only aware of his own point of view. Shared attention requires a theory of mind only if both individuals are aware of the other being aware of looking at the same target.

  • Pretending is to temporarily treat an object as if it were another, or as if it had attributes that it clearly does not have. It requires theory of mind in the sense that the pretender has to switch between thinking about his own knowledge of the real identity and the pretend identity.

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