The Theory of the Mind: What Is It?

26 December, 2019
Before children develop their social abilities, they must acquire the Theory of the Mind. In today's article, we'll help you learn all about this interesting concept.

The theory of the mind is the ability that allows us to attribute mental states to ourselves and other people. Thanks to this ability, we can capture what people believe, think and want… which gives us the capacity to predict and understand their behaviors.

This ability is innate to human beings. That being said, it doesn’t start to develop significantly until we reach the age of 2. From this point on, children begin to acquire the imaginative skills to create stories and of symbolic play.

These inventions continue to evolve gradually until finally reaching a fully developed Theory of the Mind.

“The ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes is one of the most important functions of intelligence. It demonstrates the level of maturity of human beings.”

– Augusto Cury –

The origin of this concept: An experiment with chimpanzees

This complex cognitive capacity is something that only human beings possess, as well as some apes. Premack and Woodruff were the first to suggest the Theory of the Mind. These two researchers carried out an experiment in order to demonstrate that chimpanzees could also comprehend the human mind.

In order to conduct their research, they selected a chimpanzee from their laboratory that was in frequent contact with human beings. They showed the animal a video in which one of its carers appeared inside a cage, trying to grab a banana that was out of reach. In order to reach the banana, the person could use certain instruments that were nearby.

Just when the human was about to grab the banana, the researchers would stop the image and then show the chimpanzee two different photographs. One of the pictures would show the correct solution to how the person would accomplish his goal.

The Theory of the Mind: What Is It?

The chimpanzee chose correctly the majority of the time. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the animal possessed the Theory of the Mind. The chimpanzee was able to guess that the human wanted to reach the banana and it knew how to go about it.

Given the repercussions of this study, many other studies have been conducted. Today, we can say that only human beings and some apes are able to carry out these types of mental representations. Only human beings and some apes are able to understand and intuit the emotions and behaviors of others.

Problems in the development of the Theory of the Mind

The Theory of the Mind makes up part of our social development. Therefore, if we don’t acquire this ability, it affects our social life.

Such is the case of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who don’t manage to develop this cognitive ability in an innate manner. This deficit greatly explains the social difficulties that these individuals experience.

Therefore, as a consequence, they may display difficulties in the following areas:

  • Recognizing complex emotional states. 
  • Predicting and understanding the behaviors and intentions of others.
  • Being ironic or lying, and understanding the irony and lies of others.
  • Participating in symbolic play.
  • Capturing another person’s level of knowledge or interest in regards to the subject of a conversation.
  • Comprehending social interactions.

But, if you have a child with autism spectrum disorder, the Theory of the Mind is something you can still acquire. In other words, individuals on the spectrum can learn the Theory of the Mind through certain exercises.

For example, there are a number of organizations that offer programs to help families. The internet is also a place where you can find a wide variety of materials and ideas for developing this ability in an attractive and effective way.

However, the best way to intervene in the reeducation of children with autism is with a professional… in order to work on this area or any other.

The Theory of the Mind: What Is It?

In conclusion…

To conclude, the Theory of the Mind helps us comprehend the people we interact with on a daily basis. It’s an essential ability when it comes to developing empathy, active listening, and assertiveness.

And remember…

“Open your mind, get to know yourself, seek out other points of view, and you’ll come to understand others.”

This is the secret to developing satisfactory social relationships with others.

La Teoría de la mente: definición y características

  • Equipo Deletrea. (2007). Un acercamiento al Síndrome de Asperger: una guía teórica y práctica. Andalucía: Asociación Asperger Andalucía.
  • Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?. Behavioral and brain sciences1(04), 515-526.
  • Tirapu-Ustárroz, J., Pérez-Sayes, G., Erekatxo-Bilbao, M. y Pelegrín-Valero, C. (2007). ¿Qué es la teoría de la mente. Revista de neurología44(8), 479-489.
  • Uribe, D. S., Gómez, M. y  Arango, O. E. (2010). Teoría de la mente: una revisión acerca del desarrollo del concepto. Revista Colombiana de Ciencias Sociales1(1), 28-37.