The capacity to be able to ascertain and attribute mental states to others, and also ourselves, is called mindreading or theory of mind (ToM). It is an essential ability that is needed for proper social interaction and moral competence. Children have usually developed the basics of mindreading by the age of five. They understand that others have desires, emotions and beliefs, and that these may be different from their own. We also tend to understand another’s behaviour through understanding our own, or through introspective reasoning, for example: I am happy, therefore I smile/ They smile, therefore they are happy. These are assumptions of mental states and are evident in children even before they can reason articulately.
An alternative view to the introspective ToM is Gopnick’s and Wellman’s (1992) argument which suggests that the concepts of mindreading and mental states are the premises of a theory. Knowledge of ours and other minds is reconciled by this type of understanding and is known as Theory Theory (TT). TT states that children who are learning about other minds are engaged in the construction of this theory with its attendant set of laws, and argues that children apply a theoretical understanding of the world in an attempt to make meaning out of other minds (Gopnick & Wellman, 1992, p.148). As theories do not always have evidence at hand and consequently can be falsified, so too can a child change its reasoning as it develops a theory of mind about other people. This leads to children having distinctive interpretations of evidence and therefore having differing views of the world.
Gopnick and Wellman (1992, p.149) contend that in this way a child’s theory of mind develops and transitions from one view of the mind to another so that by 5 years they have a representational view rather than a mentalistic one. At first, two year olds think about the world in terms of desires and perceptions. By three, children begin to have representational mental states that include using the terms think, know, remember, believe, pretend, and dream. By five, children develop a more thorough representational view where the representations become propositional. Gopnick and Wellman (1992, p.153) posit that at this stage a child’s view of the world is fully intentional. Therefore, they argue that the transitional mental states of children aged between 2 and 5 show all the indicators of a theory change, as a theory shifts as new evidence emerges and new predictions are able to be made (1992, p.158).
The alternative view to TT is simulation theory (ST) which holds that we mentally simulate the mental processes of others to be able to generate similar processes within ourselves. We practise this theory when we empathise with another through placing ourselves in another’s position and use this information to assess another mind’s state. Gopnick and Wellman (1992, p.160) disagree with this view on the grounds that it relies upon a person not erroneously misinterpreting their own mental state, whereas TT allows such false interpretations and the consequential corrections that may be made. They think that a young child’s errors of interpretation are incorrectly termed ‘egocentric’ and that ST disregards that very young children are quite able to attribute to others mental states that differ from their own (1992, p.164).
However, objections to both theories could be that ST can be automatically achieved through neural mechanisms that associate similar behaviours and TT may be considered only a tacit theory if indeed ToM turns out to be false. It could be that beliefs and desires are simply automated workings of the mind. If this is the case, then only neuroscience has the ability to explain the workings of the mind.
- Gopnik, Alison; Wellman, Henry M. “Why the child’s theory of mind really is a theory” Mind and Language , 7:1 and 2 , 1992 , 145-171