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Monday, November 23 2020

Theory of Mind

This is the ability to understand the experiences, desires and intentions of yourself and others.  With theory of mind individuals can predict and interpret the behaviour of others and act in a way that can make use of this knowledge.


The development of theory of mind is a gradual process from birth and it is complex.  Prior to its emergence, in very early life there is little separation of the self.  It has long been held that the child believes that everyone knows everything they are experiencing.  However, there is no direct evidence of this, they don’t ‘know’ their mother shares their thoughts it’s just that they believe she does.  


However, the child does experience things on a personal level, the beginning of a sense of self.  Between five to seven months they experience fear and anxiety and this relates to ‘them’ being under threat.  This development of separation continues and between 15 and 24 months at which stage they can pass the ‘spot test’ a process that confirms the child knows it is them in the mirror.  This is achieved by putting a mark usually a dot of colour on their forehead, when they know it reflects themselves they will touch or try to remove the spot, they know it should not be theirs.  Prior to that age they don’t firmly see their reflection as being of themselves and don’t comprehend that the mark should not be there.  This test is extensively used to measure the same occurrence of theory of mind in animals.


The classic test is the false belief task.  This involves telling a child a story about two children, say Sally and Anne who put a toy in a basket. When Sally leaves the room, Ann hides the toy in a box. The child passes the test by reasoning that Sally will look for the toy in the basket when she returns.  However, a more telling confirmation of a child having a real sense of ToM is when they know they can tell a deliberate lie and/or keep a secret.  This is evidence that they can keep their thoughts and desires private and others have no access to these.


It is postulated that the acquisition of theory of mind is developed in stages and I suspect this is the same as other developmental stages such as the arrangement of hearing and sight all part of building a repertoire of activities that define the individual.  The particular stages dealing with theory of mind are:

  1. The understanding that someone might want something, they perceive other’s desires. This is why a two-year old is unable to share or take turns unless directed.
  2. Understanding people have different and diverse beliefs about the same situation.  Even adults, when asked to describe a scene, say an accident will have a different perspective.  It is a mature response to accept these differences but unless this ability is established people will refuse to see a different point of view.
  3. Accepting people have a different knowledge base, they may not comprehend or understand that something is ‘true’ even though you ‘know’ it is real.  The same conflicts outlined in stage 2 will also apply.
  4. Appreciate that people can have false beliefs about the world.  This. Of course, should include themselves.  How many wars are fought over the failure of populations to achieve to acquire this state of understanding. 
  5. People can hide emotions or may act one way while feeling another.  This is a sophisticated skill for a child.  They learn to do this as a protection for themselves and accept others may well be doing the same thing.


It is a waste of time expecting infants to share, consider others or take turns until they develop theory of mind and this happens through experience, modelling and shaping behaviour.


 Another concept that is an extension of theory of mind is mentalization.  This is more about the application of theory of mind and how behaviour is used to realize our needs, how the implicit self and the explicit other are entangled and that this relationship will guide actions.  Mentalization can be automatic, that is, actions are processed without delay, they are reflexive with little conscious effort.  Contrarily, decision making can be controlled, requiring effort with full awareness of the situations.


The optimal use of decision making occurs when there is an ability to mentalize one’s own state of mind as well as that of the ‘other’.  Imbalance results in a skewed assessment of the situation, that is if the individual has too much focus on self and is less consideration of the other, their actions are unbalanced and less effective.  The converse is equally true, too much consideration of the other will also result in less than optimal behaviour.


The emergence of theory of mind is linked to the health of the environment in which the child is raised, specifically their attachment to their caregivers.  The balance between the needs and perceptions the ‘self’ and that of the ‘other’ depends on the security of that attachment.  If the child develops a healthy understanding of the gap between their internal world and the outer world they can make effective life decisions.  However, if there is an insecurity in the attachment then there will be an imbalance with the child either giving too much consideration to their perception or conversely to the external situation.  Children whose early experience with caregivers includes abuse and/or extreme neglect will develop a severe imbalance that results in extremely dysfunctional behaviour.


Until they achieve theory of mind infants should be directed in their behaviour.  It’s appropriate to tell them to pack-up their toys, etc. and then thank them for doing so.  This is a joint experience between the carer and the child, an example of the child learning through modelling and experience.  Until they are unable to consider the other person’s emotional state, it is unreasonable to expect their respect. The presence of mirror neurons, a distinct type of neurons that allow an individual to copy whet they see.  If you poke your tongue out at a new born child there is every chance they will return that gesture. 


Not only do these neurons allow the child to copy they also interpret the intentions of what they witness.  The classic study is exposure to a dinner setting.  If the table is set in anticipation of the meal being served a particular set of neurons are excited.  However, if the conditions on the table indicate the meal has been finished and it is time to clean-up another set of neurons fire.  This underlies the importance of modelling desired behaviours.  If you want the child to clean-up then teach them to do it through modelling and the shared experience.


It must be emphasised that theory of mind in the first instance and then mentalization evolve in an environment and the specifications each individual takes as the foundation of their ToM and mentalised state will reflect that environment.  When a child moves from one environment to a contrasting one the familiar problems arise.  Theory of mind is really the emergence of self!

Posted by: AT 08:54 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

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The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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