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Theory of mind


The theory of mind is one more example of how the human being has evolved to benefit social relationships. Other people are of great influence to us, how we think, feel and behave is always in relation to other people, this is something that we cannot ignore. It is thanks to this theory that we can understand that our mental and emotional state differs from others , and this is an advance for our enrichment as we can see below.

Every time the pressure of social influence affects us more, to the point that we park our lives to meet the expectations of other people. The theory of mind is a concept used in both psychology and philosophy, as well as in the human sciences. It is considered as a capacity that the human being has developed to attribute thoughts and intentions of other people . Which means knowing your expectations and ideas without needing them to reveal them to us.

This is a capacity that clearly differentiates us from other mammals, it is something unique that only occurs in humans, due to their brain development. The theory of mind is undoubtedly a capacity inherent to our development of the neocortex. To better understand what this ability consists of, let’s look at it in more detail.

What is the theory of mind and what does it consist of?

This capacity that we have developed over time seems to have a close relationship with the importance we attach to other human beings. It is undeniable that the influence of other people is tremendously powerful, and that is why our evolution is in line with this reality.

Through the theory of mind we are able to reflect and understand our own mental state , and in turn see the differences that exist with the mental state of another person. This takes us out of self-absorption to enter a more complex world, in which we take into consideration the thoughts, ideas and desires of others, knowing that they are different points of view from ours because it represents another mental state, in a world different internal.

All this process is carried out, in most cases, unconsciously, since it occurs automatically in our brain . This happens because we are continually exposed to situations that require this ability. We are faced with people, who with the information they already have about us, infer what we may be thinking, this process in turn we carry out ourselves, and this is how we enter a loop in which I believe that you believe this. This is how we start a process of inferences that take us to other more complex points as we will see below.

This ability is not only immersed in the world of thoughts, it is also in relation to our perceptual world . Through our ability to perceive we can come to reflect on our own sensations, emotions and feelings, and in turn on those of others. To do this, we look above all at the body language and the body signs that it offers us within the context in which they occur. This helps us to anticipate both our behavior and that of others in a series of circumstances.

How is the theory of mind developed?

Humans acquire this cognitive ability around 3 and 4 years of age. It is not something we have to learn, it is simply activated in a congenital way through interaction with other people. This is how we understand that it is an improvement in evolutionary functions . The cultural factor plays an important fundamental for the development of this capacity in the human being.

Throughout our childhood we make use of our capacity for theory of mind. It is also at this stage when some psychopathological states occur that impede the development of the theory of mind, such as autism spectrum disorders .

Our species is the only one that is capable from a very early age to consider others as intentional agents, thus understanding that they have their own interests independently of us. In this way we understand that actions can be directed towards a goal , even if we do not know that goal. This is the time when we want the other people around us to direct their attention to us, to attend to our needs.

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In infants there is a stage, called the nine-month revolution, in which cognitive skills are developed for the creation of complex social behaviors. Skills such as pretend play and imitation are learned. The theory of mind is based on the acquisition of all these social capacities . Others are not only thought of as an intentional individual, but also as a mental entity capable of generating a whole series of psychological states such as thoughts, beliefs and desires.

In its development we can observe how this capacity is loaded with implicit messages that we have been connecting to our way of thinking and seeing the world . In an intuitive way we are forming judgments about other people, and this is how prejudice evolves in turn. This, as we have said before, appears automatically in our thinking and we hardly question it. Of course, it should be noted that this ability has its benefits, since it allows us to quickly and effectively relate to people and anticipate their behaviors, but it also gives rise to many erroneous beliefs and misunderstandings.

The false belief test

This test was developed in order to understand how the theory of mind is produced in children, and how it is possible to verify that, indeed, they have developed this capacity.

One of the experiments carried out with the false belief test is carried out as follows: Two groups of children of different ages, one of them with children between approximately 3 years old, and the other between 4 and 5 years old, they are shown a puppet show. In this role there are two main characters, one is Sally and the other Anne. In the show Sally appears keeping a ball in a basket and then she goes to play. In Sally’s absence, Anne takes out that ball and places it somewhere else, in a box. Sally returns and looks for the ball. The two groups of children who are watching the show are asked where will Sally look for the ball?

The group of older children answers correctly unlike the other group. Since they understand that Sally will look for the ball where she left it, and not where Anne left it in her absence. This happens because, as observed by one of the main scholars of the theory of mind, the psychologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1994) , it is from this age when one has sufficient knowledge to respond correctly, because The mechanisms have been developed that allow the child this information process.

These experiments are still being developed today to detect psychopathologies and better understand the theory of mind, how it evolves and develops in children into adulthood. This test of a mock situation involves that simulation of an individual who has a different cognitive possibility.

Usually, the boys and girls who participate in this test under the age of 4 give the wrong answer, believing that Sally has the same information as them, and therefore she will go to look for the ball where Anne left it in her absence. However, children over 4 years of age generally give the correct answer. This is the proof that they have made the transition to the theory of mind that allows them to perceive reality more clearly, thus abandoning their egocentricity . The egocentric perception that others see, feel and think exactly the same as we see is typical of children under 4 years of age.

We present a video in which an example of a false belief test is shown:

In short, as we have been able to verify, the theory of mind usually appears after 4 years of age. When we have already developed basic social capacities that give support and meaning to this more complex cognitive capacity. The theory of mind is fundamental for our development as individuals adapted to a society that is in permanent interaction. Although our brain uses energy savings to anticipate the behavior of others, in many cases, hardly having enough information to do so. In our development we also use metacognition trying to stop this automatic process for a moment, and question everything we assume and think about others.


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Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

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