• Dr. Timothy Smith

The Importance of the Theory of Mind


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Theory of Mind refers to the concept that a person has a sense of their own mental states such as thoughts, dreams, desires and ideas as well as recognizing that other people have their own separate thoughts, feelings and minds different from one’s own. Theory of Mind includes the ability to recognize mental conditions such as imagination, knowledge, motivations, empathy and desires. In other words, the Theory of Mind helps people survive the complex landscape of human interaction. For example, an effective teacher must have Theory of Mind that informs her what her students don’t know and how she will reach them in her teaching. It may seem obvious that we have minds, but from a scientific perspective, the problem of proving the Theory of Mind is more complicated. In fact, the Theory of Mind gets its name because the mind cannot be seen or measured, so it remains a theory. Even though, the mind cannot be seen or measured, psychologists have devised various tests to demonstrate Theory of Mind. The Theory of Mind is best explained in the tests that demonstrate it.

Children normally develop Theory of Mind sometime after the age of three. Through play, stories and interpersonal interaction, children learn how to anticipate the actions and intentions of other children and adults. The crucial capability of anticipating someone else’s thoughts and actions help people to predict the actions and intentions of others. One test for Theory of Mind goes by two names-- the False-Belief Task or the “Sally-Anne test”. In general, the test involves a young child, two dolls, a ball, a basket, a box and a researcher. The researcher will use two dolls, one named Sally and the other Anne. With the child watching, the researcher will show one doll named Sally with a ball, and the researcher will show the Sally doll putting her ball in the basket. The Sally doll then leaves and the Anne doll takes the ball out of the basket and puts it in the box. When the Sally doll returns, the researcher will ask the child where Sally will look for the ball. Children in the three-year-old range will say, “In the box”, because at this age children have not yet developed the Theory of Mind. The child cannot think that Sally would have different thoughts from themselves, that their knowledge is everyone’s knowledge. Hence, the child will believe that Sally also knows that the ball is currently in the box. At around four years old, children will answer the same question about where Sally will look for the ball, “in the basket,” because they know that Sally will still think the ball in the basket. The child can take someone else’s point of view. The child has developed a Theory of Mind that conceives of Sally’s mind having different information than their own. Moreover, the development of Theory of Mind in children is a crucial step towards them developing key human qualities such as empathy and trust, and in cases such as autism and schizophrenia where Theory of Mind is not properly developed, its absence can be devastating.

Over the past decade, researchers have developed experiments that show that some animals also display Theory of Mind. For years, people have insisted that some animals can read their mind or appear guilty or concerned, in other words, animals can also have the Theory of Mind, but research was needed to confirm these assertions. In an article titled “Great apes anticipate that other individuals will act according to false beliefs” published in 2016 paper in the journal Science by researchers in Germany and Japan, describe a sort of Sally-Anne Test for great apes including chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans that showed for the first time that these animals can predict how another ape will behave, demonstrating a Theory of Mind. In the experiment, apes were shown a movie of an ape (a grad student dressed in a gorilla suit) that sneaks up on a researcher and whacks him on the back with a stick and then hides in one of two piles of hay. Next, the researcher leaves the scene, and a short while later, the ape leaves the scene too. Soon, the researcher returns with a stick and starts walking toward the hay piles. Using cameras to track the eye movement of the apes watching the film, the researchers found that a significant number of apes looked at the hay pile where the ape once was. In essence, the apes knew what the researcher wanted to do. The chimps, bonobos, and orangutans were thinking that the researcher believes, falsely, that the ape is in one of the hay piles. In other words, the apes were anticipating where the researcher would go to get revenge. The apes were able get into the researcher’s state of mind. In other words the apes were demonstrating what was always considered only a human capability-- Theory of Mind.

Research in other species such as birds and rats suggest that a number of animals demonstrate Theory of Mind. In a study, by Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal and others as the University of Chicago showed that rats will leave their comfort zones close to walls to open a latch that frees another distressed rat that is stuck in a tube. The study goes on to show that rats will do this not only for rats they know but even strangers, demonstrating empathy, which requires a Theory of Mind. In another study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University in the UK, Nicola Clayton determined that Western scrub jays will behave differently when they know they are being watched by another Jay demonstrating again a Theory of Mind. Jays will hide food for later. In the study, jays were given peanuts that they would hide in little trays. When a jay was being watched by another jay while hiding the peanuts, the jay hiding the peanuts would re-hide them when the other bird had left, assuming that the other bird was taking note of where the peanuts were hidden. These studies and others continue to expand our view of the minds of animals and support what many believed all along but could not prove.

Theory of mind is a very important concept for people to understand. Theory of Mind studies not only inform our understanding of human behavior but extend our understanding of the animal world as well. The Theory of Mind remains a theory because the mind cannot be seen, only communicated or inferred from experiments. Theory of Mind forms the basis of so many qualities considered unique to humans such as empathy, imagination, and beliefs. However, Theory of Mind has been attributed to animals such a great apes, dogs, birds, rats and others. The discovery of Theory of Mind in animals fundamentally changes our relationship with the animal world from the 19th Century view of animals as unthinking, unfeeling creatures of instinct to a closer more relatable kinship than ever before. Moreover, as artificial intelligence continues to expand in industry and society Theory of Mind will be central to how we relate to autonomous robots. The robots will need to develop Theory of Mind to successfully interact with people and animals. Moreover, people will naturally apply the Theory of Mind as they interact with intelligent robots, anticipating and empathizing with them as well.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

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