Knowing the content of one’s own mind might seem straightforward but in fact it’s much more like mindreading other people
In 1978, David Premack and Guy Woodruff published a paper that would go on to become famous in the world of academic psychology. Its title posed a simple question: does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?
In coining the term ‘theory of mind’, Premack and Woodruff were referring to the ability to keep track of what someone else thinks, feels or knows, even if this is not immediately obvious from their behaviour. We use theory of mind when checking whether our colleagues have noticed us zoning out on a Zoom call – did they just see that? A defining feature of theory of mind is that it entails second-order representations, which might or might not be true. I might think that someone else thinks that I was not paying attention but, actually, they might not be thinking that at all. And the success or failure of theory of mind often turns on an ability to appropriately represent another person’s outlook on a situation. For instance, I can text my wife and say: ‘I’m on my way,’ and she will know that by this I mean that I’m on my way to collect our son from nursery, not on my way home, to the zoo, or to Mars. Sometimes this can be difficult to do, as captured by a New Yorker cartoon caption of a couple at loggerheads: ‘Of course I care about how you imagined I thought you perceived I wanted you to feel.’
Premack and Woodruff’s article sparked a deluge of innovative research into the origins of theory of mind. We now know that a fluency in reading minds is not something humans are born with, nor is it something guaranteed to emerge in development. In one classic experiment, children were told stories such as the following:
Maxi has put his chocolate in the cupboard. While Maxi is away, his mother moves the chocolate from the cupboard to the drawer. When Maxi comes back, where will he look for the chocolate?
Until the age of four, children often fail this test, saying that Maxi will look for the chocolate where it actually is (the drawer), rather than where he thinks it is (in the cupboard). They are using their knowledge of the reality to answer the question, rather than what they know about where Maxi had put the chocolate before he left. Autistic children also tend to give the wrong answer, suggesting problems with tracking the mental states of others. This test is known as a ‘false belief’ test – passing it requires one to realise that Maxi has a different (and false) belief about the world.
Many researchers now believe that the answer to Premack and Woodruff’s question is, in part, ‘no’ – suggesting that fully fledged theory of mind might be unique to humans. If chimpanzees are given an ape equivalent of the Maxi test, they don’t use the fact that another chimpanzee has a false belief about the location of the food to sneak in and grab it. Chimpanzees can trackknowledge states – for instance, being aware of what others see or do not see, and knowing that, when someone is blindfolded, they won’t be able to catch them stealing food. There is also evidence that they track the difference between true and false beliefs in the pattern of their eye movements, similar to findings in human infants. Dogs also have similarly sophisticated perspective-taking abilities, preferring to choose toys that are in their owner’s line of sight when asked to fetch. But so far, at least, only adult humans have been found to act on an understanding that other minds can hold different beliefs about the world to their own.
Research on theory of mind has rapidly become a cornerstone of modern psychology. But there is an underappreciated aspect of Premack and Woodruff’s paper that is only now causing ripples in the pond of psychological science. Theory of mind as it was originally defined identified a capacity to impute mental states not only to others but also to ourselves. The implication is that thinking about others is just one manifestation of a rich – and perhaps much broader – capacity to build what philosophers call metarepresentations, or representations of representations. When I wonder whether you know that it’s raining, and that our plans need to change, I am metarepresenting the state of your knowledge about the weather.
Intriguingly, metarepresentations are – at least in theory – symmetric with respect to self and other: I can think about your mind, and I can think about my own mind too. The field of metacognition research, which is what my lab at University College London works on, is interested in the latter – people’s judgments about their own cognitive processes. The beguiling question, then – and one we don’t yet have an answer to – is whether these two types of ‘meta’ are related. A potential symmetry between self-knowledge and other-knowledge – and the idea that humans, in some sense, have learned to turn theory of mind on themselves – remains largely an elegant hypothesis. But an answer to this question has profound consequences. If self-awareness is ‘just’ theory of mind directed at ourselves, perhaps it is less special than we like to believe. And if we learn about ourselves in the same way as we learn about others, perhaps we can also learn to know ourselves better. […]
Edited byPam Weintraub
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