Human's Uniqueness in the Understanding of the Theory of Mind

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Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states which includes goals, beliefs, intentions and desires to oneself and to others. This essay is looking at theory of mind of adults and social cognition of infant and children. The presumption of humans’ uniqueness in understanding theory of mind is largely true and will be discussed in this essay through the false-belief test, a number of theories and mind blindness, which is a theory of mind deficit caused by brain impairments. There will also be a brief explanation on when infant and children began to understand theory of mind before the theories are explained in depth. However, the theory of mind is measured by using only one test which is the false-belief test. This will be question at the end of the essay before a conclusion is drawn.

Generally, human begin to understand the intention of grasps between the age of 3 months old to 6 months old. In this period, toddlers are able to show understanding by observation. The study of Meltzoff (1995) examinates the relationship between infant imitation and concept of intention. It was found that infants and children are able to recognize other’s intention and goal at 18 months old of age. They not only imitate actions because they have observed adults doing it, but they also understand the intention and goal of an adult by interpreting from their action. They progress to understand the connection between other people’s desire or preference and their specific actions beyond the age of 18 months old. One way to recognize someone’s desire is in the study of Repacholi & Gopnik (1997). Repacholi suggested that children would give their food preference when being asked at 14 months old, but they were able to distinguish experimenter’s desired food at the age of 18 months old. This is called self-other desire distinction, and children were able to understand the distinction between their self-desire and others. Beliefs are more complex than intention and desire because it is based on an idea which may or may not be true. The false-belief test is a sophisticated test of the understanding that other people will act in accord with their own belief. By three years old, children understand that both desires and beliefs influence and affect behavior, but they have difficulties with false-beliefs problems. When children reach five years old, children classically pass the false-belief problems and would find them to be really easy. The false-belief test provides unequivocal evidence that children understand that a person can be mistaken about something they themselves understand.

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The psychological test to measure a person’s social cognitive ability to attribute false beliefs to others is called the Sally-Anne test, which was implemented by Wimmer and Perner (1983) and was modified by Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) in order to be simple enough to be administrated to children with autism. In Wimmer and Perner (1983), two female dolls were introduced to the children which were called Sally and Anne. Sally put her ball in a basket next to Anne’s box and left the room. While she was gone, the placement of the ball was changed by Anne to be in her box. When Sally comes back, children were asked where Sally will look for her ball. Generally, children will answer that Sally will look for her ball in the basket which is where she last put the ball. However, children who fails the false-belief test struggle with this because they know the ball is in the Anne’s basket, not in the box, and they will state that Sally should find the ball in the basket where she would find it. Therefore, children’s belief differs from one to another and can be measured by the false-belief test.

There are a few theories that suggest the factors that are preventing some children from passing the false-belief test. One of the theories is known as information processing theory. This theory addresses how as children grow, their brains likewise mature, leading to advances in their ability to process and respond to the information they received through their senses. An information is received by a person is processed in working or short-term memory. This is where information is temporarily held so that it may be used, discarded, or transferred into long-term memory in the human mind. This theory suggests that understanding people’s mind places a demand on information-processing skills. A reason why some children fail at the false-belief task is because the executive functioning demanding are too high. Children need to inhibit their own knowledge in order to recognize that someone else’s knowledge might differ from them. Therefore, the ability to show social knowledge increases as information processes capacity increases. Children may not pass the false-belief test as the information processing skills requires a high demand for their age.

The second theory is known as sociocultural theory. This theory suggest that family environment might influence performance on the false-belief test, especially if the task involves tricking another person. If children have older siblings who always play tricks on them and tries to deceive them frequently, they might have an effect on the role in understanding the situation as they have personally experience it.

Another theory is called core knowledge theory by Baren-Cohen et al. (1985). The theory suggest that human possesses a brain mechanism devoted to understanding others. This emerges very easily in life and relates to Jean Piaget’s theory that all children are naive psychologists. The central focus of this approach is whether our uniquely human capacities are evident early in development, or whether the differences between our abilities and those of other species emerge later in development. To help us understand our uniquely human capacities, one goal of this theory is to compare our cognitive capacities to those of other species to see where these paths diverge. The uniquely human ability may be grounded in using the core systems as a foundation for building new cognitive skills. Perhaps the reason we seem so smart is that other species lack the ability to combine the input from various core knowledge systems. This combinatorial power creates entirely new representation systems like tool use, symbolic arithmetic and navigating by maps and landmarks. Thus, when human capabilities are being compared to those of other species, we should be able to have different abilities due to our cognitive capacities. However, cognitive capacities among human and children differs from one to another. As a result, some children may take longer time compared to other children to pass the false-belief task.

Lastly, there is dynamic systems theory, that views children as ever-changing, well-integrated organism that combined perception, action, attention, memory, language, and social influences to produce actions that satisfy goals. Dynamic systems theory is a theory of motor development that can be applied to the management of children with cerebral palsy. It is especially useful in the understanding of how movement develops and changes, and can provide insight into a child's readiness to acquire new motor abilities. This theory proposes that movement is produced from the interaction of multiple sub-systems within the person, task and environment. All of the sub-systems spontaneously self-organize, or come together and interact in a specific way to produce the most efficient movement solution for each specific task (Thelen, 1989). Some children may have a slow movement to produce an interaction of sub-systems within themselves, task and environment. Due to this difference in movement among children, some may be able to pass the test, while some are not. Therefore, the dynamic systems in children play important role in performing false-belief tasks.

Human can also be unique in understanding theories of mind when they have mind-blindness. This is when theory of mind is impaired and causes someone difficulty to have perspective-taking. Individuals who experience a theory of mind deficit have difficulty determining the intention of others, lack understanding of how theory behavior affects others, and have difficulty in social reciprocity. This can be observed in people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, nonverbal learning disorder, attention deficit disorder, and people under the influence of alcohol and narcotics. Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) suggested that children with autism do not employ theory of mind and that autistic children have particular difficulties with tasks requiring the child to understand another person’s belief. Thus, leading them to have a different and unique understanding of their own belief as well as others. The study of schizophrenia in theory of mind was presented by Sprong et al. (2007) and it was found that people with schizophrenia performed poorly on false-belief tasks which access the ability to infer a character’s intention from reading a short story. Patients with schizophrenia are unable to represent the mental states of themselves and of others due to having negative symptoms like lack of emotions, motivations and impairment. Impairments in theory of mind are also found in alcoholic due to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly prefrontal cortex. This is a type of social-cognitive deficits. Lastly, individuals with past major depressive disorder also shows deficits in theory of mind decoding. It means the inability to use available information in the immediate environment to accurately label the mental state of others. This information available is such as facial expression, tone of voice and body posture. Therefore, alcoholism and depression play important role on how human do not tend to understand theory of mind, especially on others.

While the false-belief test is a great tool to measure the theory of mind, the question remains whether it is really reliable and accurate to determine a person’s ability to attribute false belief to others. Beliefs, intention and desires are unique in their own way and are different states of mind. These three states of mind do not necessarily link, connect and influence one another. The false-belief test examines the ability to attribute false belief to others, but not understanding goals and intentions of others. Therefore, the false-belief test alone is not sufficient to uphold the theory of mind, especially when it involves various and different states of mind. Bloom and German (2000) suggested that the false-belief test should be abandon on two grounds. First, passing the false-belief task requires abilities other than theory of mind. Second, theory of mind need not entail the ability to reason about false beliefs. They concluded with an alternative conception of the role of the false-belief task. It is virtuous that there exist a yardstick and measurement of test to define the ability to attribute false belief to other. However, it would not be sufficient to measure theory of mind as a whole. Different and specific test should be created in the future to be more precise in determining theory of mind in psychology.

In conclusion, humans are unique in understanding theory of mind due to different theories stated above and impairments of brain, However, there is only one test to measure the theory of mind and it could be distinctive due to the reliability and accuracy of the false-belief test. Impairments of the brain is however being proved by the symptoms of each impairment, therefore would be more reliable in concluding human uniqueness in understanding theory of mind.

References

  1. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the Autistic Child Have a ‘Theory of Mind’?. Cognition, 21(1), 37-46. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8.
  2. Bloom, P., & German, T., P. (2000). Two Reasons to Abandon the False Belief Task as a Test of Theory of Mind. Cognition 77(1), B25-B31. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(00)00096-2.
  3. Felisberti, F., M., & King, R. (2017). Mind-Reading in Altruists and Psychopaths. In: Ibáñez A., Sedeño L., García A. (Ed.), Neuroscience and Social Science (pp. 121-140). Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-68421-5_6.
  4. Meltzoff, A., N. (1995). Understanding the Intentions of Others: Re-Enactment of Intended Acts by 18-Month-Old Children. Developmental Psychology, 31(5), 838-850. doi: 10.1037/0012- 1649.31.5.838.
  5. Repacholi, B., M., & Gopnik, A. (1997). Early Reasoning About Desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-Month-Olds. Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 12-21. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.33.1.12.
  6. Siegler, R., DeLoache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How Children Develop (4th ed). New York, US: Worth Publishers.
  7. Sprong, M., Schothorst, P., Vos, E., Hox, J., & Van Engeland, H. (2007). Theory of Mind in Schizophrenia: Meta-Analysis. Br J Psychiatry, 191, 5-13. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.107.035899.
  8. Thelen, E. (1989). The (Re)Discovery of Motor Development: Learning New Things from an Old Field. Developmental Psychology, 25(6), 946-949. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.25.6.946.
  9. Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs About Beliefs: Representation and Constraining Function of Wrong Beliefs in Young Children's Understanding of Deception. Cognition, 13(1), 103-128. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5.
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