Core mechanisms in "theory of mind"

Trends Cogn Sci. 2004 Dec;8(12):528-33. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2004.10.001.


Our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people does not initially develop as a theory but as a mechanism. The "theory of mind" mechanism (ToMM) is part of the core architecture of the human brain, and is specialized for learning about mental states. Impaired development of this mechanism can have drastic effects on social learning, seen most strikingly in the autistic spectrum disorders. ToMM kick-starts belief-desire attribution but effective reasoning about belief contents depends on a process of selection by inhibition. This selection process (SP) develops slowly through the preschool period and well beyond. By modeling the ToMM-SP as mechanisms of selective attention, we have uncovered new empirical phenomena. We propose that early "theory of mind" is a modular-heuristic process of domain-specific learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Culture
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Socialization