Theory of mind

Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science (2017)
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Abstract

Theory of mind” consists in the ability to use concepts of intentional mental states, such as beliefs, emotions, intentions, goals, and perceptual states, in order to predict and interpret behavior. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have revealed a distinctive network of neural regions that is active during theory-of-mind tasks, including the temporal-parietal junction, the posterior superior temporal sulcus, the medial prefrontal cortex, the precuneus, and the temporal poles (Van Overwalle 2009). Deficits in theory-of-mind abilities, which are common in autism spectrum disorder (Tager-Flusberg 2007), typically correlate with broader difficulties in social understanding. Many scholars have suggested that theory of mind is an innate adaptation for social cognition, emerging very early in development and playing a crucial role in social learning and the acquisition of language (Baron-Cohen 1997). However, others have argued that theory of mind is the product of largely domain-general learning processes and is acquired gradually over the course development through social experience (Wellman 2014). A third view argues that humans possess two systems for theory of mind: an innate, domain-specific “implicit” system and a learned, domain-general “explicit” system (Apperly and Butterfill 2009).

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