Theory of mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand the desires, intentions and beliefs of others, and is a skill that develops between 3 and 5 years of age in typically developing children.

Relevance to autism:

Theory of mind is impaired in some people with autism. One of the earliest tests for theory of mind is the false-belief test developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith1. In the classic version of the test, a little girl named Sally puts a ball into a basket and goes out for a walk. While she is away, another little girl named Anne takes the ball out of the basket and puts it into a box. When Sally comes back, she wants to play with the ball. Where, the children are asked, will Sally look for the ball? ‘In the box,’ children with autism answer, unable to imagine that Sally might be operating under a false belief.

In 1985, Baron-Cohen, Frith and Alan Leslie reported that children with autism systematically fail the false-belief test. Children with Down syndrome pass the test, despite having lower intelligence quotients than those with autism2. The researchers concluded that autism leads to a delay in the development of theory of mind, and that people with autism have difficulty understanding the mental states of others.

However, researchers stress that it is important to distinguish false-belief tasks, which rely on language, from full-fledged theory of mind, which is more deeply impaired in people with autism.

Some children and adults with autism can pass false-belief tests, for example. But they show more difficulty with theory of mind tasks that do not allow them to reason through a problem. For example, a 2011 study reported that highly intelligent young adults with autism express tend not to weigh intention and outcome when engaged in moral reasoning3.

A 2009 eye tracking study showed that adults with Asperger syndrome seem to compute theory of mind differently than healthy people do4.

Other studies have pointed to a biological basis for impaired theory of mind in people with autism5,6. Finally, much research suggests that different aspects of language are important for developing theory of mind7. These include communication in social contexts, such as between mother and child or in peer interactions, knowledge of words and concepts referring to mental states and complex grammar, especially sentence structures used to express mental states.

  1. Baron-Cohen S. et al. Cognition 21, 37-46 (1985) PubMed
  2. Tager-Flusberg H. Child Dev. 63, 161-172 (1992) PubMed
  3. Moran J. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 2688-2692 (2011) PubMed
  4. Senju A. et al. Science 325, 883-885 (2009) PubMed
  5. Saxe R. and N. Kanwisher Neuroimage 19, 1835-1842 (2003) PubMed
  6. Kana R.K. et al. Soc. Neurosci. 4, 135-152 (2009) PubMed
  7. Astington J. and J. Baird (Eds.) Why language matters for theory of mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005)

This page was last edited 4 February 2021 (12:38pm) by Spectrum. Click here to view the full revision history.

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  1. 4 February 2021 (12:38pm) (Most Recent) (Selected Revision) by Spectrum