Neuroscience

Evolutionary origins of Theory of Mind

JANUARY 17, 2013

-Your lecture at the BCCCD13 conference was centered around the origins of Theory of Mind (ToM), but still you preferred to use the concept of core knowledge. Would you so kind as elaborating on the notion of core knowledge in the light of ToM?

The notion of core knowledge is the idea that humans may come to the world prepared to learn in certain specific domains. The idea is that infant may come equipped with some constraints on learning that guide them as they navigate the world. these constraint on learning are through to be evolutionarily old, and thus we might expect to see them shared with non-human primates as well.

Theory of mind is one of several domains thought to be part of our core knowledge architecture. The idea is that navigating social situations was a very important problem over human phylogeny, and thus we and other primates may come equipped with some mechanisms to make sense of social problems. One such mechanism is our ability to think of behavior in terms of mental states, namely our theory of mind.

-Does non-human primates have ToM?

Well, that is the big million dollar question. what we've seen so far is that non-human primates appear to share with humans the ability to think about what others see, hear, and know. They also seem to share some ability to reason about others goals and actions. The big difference, though, seems to be that other primates don't seem to recognize that others have beliefs. Although this at first sounds like a small difference, it means that other primates may not recognize when other individuals have beliefs that differ from theirs, and thus that other minds can think and believe different things. So this is indeed a potentially big difference in their understanding of other minds.

-After your lecture Gyorgy Gergely had raised the possibility that other theoretical framework (e.g. "Theory of Food") might better in understanding non-human primates, the question is implicating that ToM might impose a theoretical limitation in non-human studies. What is your PsOV on this proposal?

The issue with his proposal is that when reasoning about what others see and know, primates seem to understand a lot. They reason quite flexible about how barriers can constrain what others see, seem to extend their understanding to novel situations, all the hallmarks of a full-fledged rich causal understanding of perspective and knowledge. So I don't think really deflationary account can capture what the monkeys are doing.

-Sometimes we hear surprising studies about ravens, jays. Some etologist even claim that elephants or dolphins do have "pre-language". Language without ToM is bearly possible. How do you evaluate core knowledges, ToM in non-primates?

There's a growing body of work looking at ToM in non-primates-- dolphins, corvids like crows, and dogs. My read of this work is that overall these non-primates are showing a lot of the same capacities as primates show-- corvids know what it means for others to see and be ignorant, dogs know about others' goals, and so on. but to date, no species other than human has shown a rich knowledge of what other individuals believe.

Thank you for the interview!

Zoltan Brys
Lege Artis Medicinae
2012

Laurie R. Santos is a Professor at Yale University, her research focus is evolutionary origins of the human mind. Her TED talk about "monkey-economy" is available here.

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