What Is Theory of Mind?

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Jun 8, 2017

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What the hell is Theory of Mind?

So, your toddler likes to bite you. Or maybe she’s busy pulling the hair of her siblings. Or maybe her pretend play is to act out sleeping and eating. It’s obnoxious and painful and boring, but it’s not mean or unimaginative. She doesn’t understand what it means to be malicious or have an imagination – that’s because she hasn’t developed Theory of Mind yet.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of Mind is the understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs, points of view, perceptions and emotions different from your own. It’s called a theory for esoteric reasons – we can’t really be sure that what’s going on in other people’s heads is different from our own, just like we can’t really be sure whether it’s the same. So, it’s called a theory. But scientists (and regular adult people) are pretty sure it’s fact.

Up until age 5, kids are little egotists. They only understand what they think, feel and experience, and they assume everyone has these perceptions, ideas, feelings and intentions because, well, they have them. And the world revolves around them. Basically, your child is the Vatican in the 15th century, she just lacks the gold and manpower to kill the heretics around her. Instead, she throws tantrums, bites with abandon, writhes gleefully while ignoring your admonishments, and, around age 3 to 4, only acts out what she has already experienced.

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So, what is it like in her head?

To give you an idea of how your kid views the world, let’s look at a few experiments cognitive researchers have developed over the years. The first, and probably most academically famous, is the Mountain Task, developed by a clinical psychologist and pioneer in child development, Jean Piaget.

Piaget created a diorama of three mountains – one with snow on it, one with a cross on top, and one with a house on top. Children were allowed to look at the whole diorama from every angle before a doll was placed within it. Then, they were asked – what does the doll see? They were asked to choose from photos of various angles within the diorama. At age 4, kids would choose the photo that reflected their own perspective on the diorama. By age 6, kids started to demonstrate an awareness that the doll’s perception would be different from their own. And by ages 7 and 8, they nailed it, choosing the image with the doll’s perspective.

(Piaget’s experiment was criticized for being too complicated for kids. Later variations, which placed Sesame Street’s well-known character, Grover, and farm animals in a pastoral landscape in a similar way; in this version, kids as young as 3 showed inklings of ability to take Grover’s perspective.

Another experiment, known as the Sally-Anne Test, is also telling. In it, kids are taken through the following scenario:

Children with a developed Theory of Mind will answer, “In Sally’s basket;” they know that Sally could not know it was in Anne’s box, because Sally was not present when Anne moved it, even if they were. A child who has yet to develop Theory of Mind will answer, “In Anne’s box,” because she presumes that Sally – and everybody – has the knowledge and thoughts that she herself has.

This isn’t to say that Theory of Mind stops developing at age 8 – it just continues to get more nuanced, allowing kids to understand lying, sarcasm and figurative language. Some scientists think it continues to develop over our whole lives, as we experience more people and their behaviour. (Those scientists have clearly not met the current US president.)

How do I help my kid develop Theory of Mind?

For most kids, this is a natural part of development. Theory of Mind is actually a culmination of a bunch of other skills that develop in the 0-5 years, like being able to pay attention to people; being able to imitate people; recognizing by name emotions like happy, sad, mad; understanding the emotional consequences of actions (like, ‘If I bite mom, she will be mad’); and pretending to be someone else (someone they’re familiar with) when they play, like a doctor or teacher. All of these are things parents can work on in the first five years to set kids up for a solid Theory of Mind.

For others, however, it may be something they always struggle with. Children on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD may struggle with understanding how other’s mental lives are different from their own.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

See all articles by Liesl

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