In this post we are going to talk about another fundamental topic in the philosophy of mind. When we go about our daily tasks we often interact with people, and when we do it is very easy for us to understand that other people have certain mental states. If you see your friend eating a sandwich, you can easily see that she is doing that because she is hungry. She was feeling hungry and had the desire to do something about it. This is called the theory of mind, that we walk around and attribute mental states to ourselves and others. That people believe, desire, know, certain things. 

Why Is It Called a Theory of Mind?

Humans are very good at attributing mental states to other people. Even young children start doing this without much explicit instruction from adults. So why do we call it a theory? It’s not like 7 year old kids run around with notepads investigating people.

It’s because we cannot directly observe the minds of other people. For example, if I see a banana in front of me, I don’t have to think of a theory to figure out whether it is actually there. I can just see it. But it is different with a mind, we cannot really see minds.

When Does It Start?

So, at what point does a human start to develop this theory of mind? This happens gradually throughout a child’s life, but there are significant markers that are shared by most kids in many cultures. For example, Simon Baron-Cohen has found that infants who are only approximately 9 months old, can share attention towards a certain object. So, if infants see a cool toy that they like, they could point towards it so that an adult can go get it. That’s pretty insane that children so young can do that. This has been regarded as a precursor to understanding the minds of others. The kid understands that the adult is not simply a thing, but a person who can perceive something together with them, and do stuff in the world.

Another interesting result in theory of mind in children is that around 4 years old, kids suddenly are able to understand false beliefs. That some person may believe something that is not actually true. Before 4 years old they can’t do this. Allow me to explain this further with the following experiment, called the Sally-Anne test. It goes like this. 

The Sally-Anne Test

Children are told a story which involves two characters, they are called Sally and Anne. Sally and Anne are standing near a basket and a box. 

Sally has a marble and decides to put it into her basket. Then she walks out the room for a sec. Anne, who is very evil and devious for some reason, decides to take the marble out of the basket, and put it in the box. A little bit later, Sally walks into the room again, and wants to get the marble back. Now the question is, where do you think Sally will look for her marble, in the basket, or the box? So, of course, pretty much any adult can tell you that Sally will look in the basket, because she believes that the marble is there. But recall, that this experiment is done on children who are around 4 years old.

It turns out that kids who are older than 4 years old consistently give the right answer, while kids who are younger give the wrong answer. How about that? That’s also pretty crazy right. Something happens in your brain when you turn 4, and then you are suddenly able to recognize that someone can have a false belief. Before that age, you can’t really understand that people can have beliefs that can be different than yours. Kids who are 3 might think yeah she will look in the box because that is where the marble is! They cannot see the beliefs. 

I do have to add here that the numbers aren’t as exact as I sketch out here. With later experimentations it has been shown that there is quite some cultural variation with this. There are some cultures where kids don’t pass this false belief test until they are 12 or something. One explanation for this is that you need a lot of social learning to recognize individual beliefs, and some cultures don’t focus on the individual that much but more on the collective, like Eastern cultures.

There are also experiments which question whether kids are unable to understand the situation, or that they simply cannot express it correctly in words. There are versions of the test which are done non-verbally, and there kids can even recognize false beliefs earlier than 4. So, perhaps something happens in the interaction between mind and language, that kids can recognize false beliefs and express it into words.


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