The neuroscience of theory of mind

The study of social cognition (“people thinking about people”) and social neuroscience has exploded in the last few years. Much of energy — but by no means all of it — has focused on Theory of Mind.

“Theory of Mind” is something we are all assumed to have — that is, we all have a theory that other people’s actions are best explained by the fact that they have minds which contain wants, beliefs and desires. (One good reason for calling this a “theory” is that while we have evidence that other people have minds and that this governs their behavior, none of us actually has proof. And, in fact, some researchers have been claiming that, although we all have minds, those minds do not necessarily govern our behavior.)

Non-human animals and children under the age of 4 do not appear to have theory of mind, except in perhaps a very limited sense. This leads to the obvious question: what is different about human brains over the age of 4 that allows us to think about other people’s thoughts, beliefs and desires?

It might seem like Theory of Mind is such a complex concept that it would be represented diffusely throughout the brain. However, in the last half-decade or so, neuroimaging studies have locked in on two different areas of the brain. One, explored by Jason Mitchell of Harvard, among others, is the medial prefrontal cortex (the prefrontal cortex is, essentially, in the front of your brain. “medial” means it is on the interior surface, where the two hemispheres face each other, rather than on the exterior surface, facing your skull). The other is the temporoparietal junction (where your parietal and temporal lobes meet), described first in neuroimaging by Rebecca Saxe of MIT and colleagues.

Not surprisingly, there is some debate about which of these brain areas is more important (this breaks down in the rather obvious way) and also what the two areas do. Mitchell and colleagues tend to favor some version of “simulation theory” — the idea that people (at least in some situations) guess what somebody else might be thinking by implicitly putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. Saxe does not.

Modulo that controversy, theory of mind has been tied to a couple fairly small and distinct brain regions. These results have been replicated a number of times now and seem to be robust. This opens up the possibility, among other things, of studying the cross-species variation in theory of mind, as well as the development of theory of mind as children reach their fourth birthdays.


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