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Machines Like Us

Thinking about others is not child’s play

Sunday, 19 August 2012
by Anne Trafton

New MIT research shows what happens inside the brains of young children as they learn to think about the thoughts and emotions of other people.

MIT study reveals changes in brain activity as children learn to read other people’s behavior.

When you try to read other people’s thoughts, or guess why they are behaving a certain way, you employ a skill known as theory of mind. This skill, as measured by false-belief tests, takes time to develop: In children, it doesn’t start appearing until the age of 4 or 5.

Several years ago, MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe showed that in adults, theory of mind is seated in a specific brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). Saxe and colleagues at MIT have now shown how brain activity in the TPJ changes as children learn to reason about others’ thoughts and feelings.

The findings suggest that the right TPJ becomes more specific to theory of mind as children age, taking on adult patterns of activity over time. The researchers also showed that the more selectively the right TPJ is activated when children listen to stories about other people’s thoughts, the better those children perform in tasks that require theory of mind.

The paper, published in the July 31 online edition of the journal Child Development, lays the groundwork for exploring theory-of-mind impairments in autistic children, says Hyowon Gweon, a graduate student in Saxe’s lab and lead author of the paper.

“Given that we know this is what typically developing kids show, the next question to ask is how it compares to autistic children who exhibit marked impairments in their ability to think about other people’s minds,” Gweon says. “Do they show differences from typically developing kids in their neural activity?”

Saxe, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is senior author of the Child Development paper. Other authors are Marina Bedny, a postdoc in Saxe’s lab, and David Dodell-Feder, a graduate student at Harvard University.

Tracking theory of mind

The classic test for theory of mind is the false-belief test, sometimes called the Sally-Anne test. Experimenters often use dolls or puppets to perform a short skit: Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket, then leaves the room. Anne then removes the marble and puts it in her own box. When Sally returns, the child watching the skit is asked: Where will Sally look for her marble?

Children with well-developed theory of mind realize that Sally will look where she thinks the marble is: her own basket. However, before children develop this skill, they don’t realize that Sally’s beliefs may not correspond to reality. Therefore, they believe she will look for the marble where it actually is, in Anne’s box.