Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to interpret one’s own and other people’s mental and emotional states, understanding that each person has unique motives, perspectives, etc. as stated on Dictionary.com. Those who have a cognitive disorder where they are unable to attribute mental states to themselves and others is described as Mind-blindness. With the lack of ToM, people have huge obstacles in communicating with others. It may be hard to imagine not having the ability to think of how others are thinking or feeling but for those who are autistic, have Asperger’s, or are described as mind-blindness, this is their everyday life. According to Lynne Soraya, those who lack ToM often think “if I can’t/don’t feel it or perceive it, then they can’t/don’t feel it or perceive it (or vice versa)”. I think that this idea is a helpful way to understand how those who lack ToM think.
Cartoon Illustration of Theory of Mind
A great deal of research has been done on the theory of mind phenomenon. In the research, many have tested non-autistic children as well as children with mental retardation. Within those tests, it was found that the phenomenon is unique with those who are autistic as well as those with Asperger’s syndrome but to a smaller extent. According to Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D., since they lack ToM, they may appear uncaring and self-centered. This is because they cannot anticipate how others may react in different situations and may not have the reaction others want.
Many researchers have been interested in finding a way to teach those with autism how to understand and acknowledge the thoughts and feelings of others. Carol Gray developed an intervention method to teach autistic children. This method is called “social stories” which consists of short stories that describe scenarios which will allow the autistic child to understand themselves and others better. The stories act as a motivation to start asking questions about others and try to recognize that everyone thinks differently in their own unique way.
There is a specific region of the brain called the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ) whose job is to think about thoughts. Studies were conducted by Rebecca Saxe and show that RTPJ is key to the morality aspects that are central to ToM. Her findings have shown that the abilities of children to reason and judge people thinking about people scenarios develop rapidly between the ages of 3 to 7 years old.
In a study done on children, 3, 5, and 7 years old were presented a scenario where a man puts a sandwich down on top of a box. He then leaves and the wind knocks the sandwich off of the box. A second man comes along and puts his own sandwich down on the box and then leaves. The question is which sandwich will the first man take when he returns. With the scenario, Saxe used props so they could visualize the actions in the story. The findings lead to having found that children’s RTPJ are only about 25% specialized at 5-8 years old, about 65% at 8-11 years old, and above 75% but under 100% in the adult years.
Saxe also has done other work with adult subjects where she stimulates the RTPJ by the use of electromagnets through the skull, to the region of the brain. The results showed that there was a decrease in the subjects ability to make usual moral judgments while the function was being disrupted. The screencast from her TED talk depicts the changes made in how much blame should be put on an individual after the RTPJ was disrupted.
Rebecca Saxe’s TED talk on Theory of Mind
With this finding, there are many worries with the ethical issues that are connected to the possible ability to disrupt a person’s ability to make moral judgments or to even change their beliefs. Do you think that in the future neuroscientists will use the electromagnetic shocks to changes people thoughts? What are your thoughts on Theory of Mind as a whole?