Theory of mind tasks and executive functions: a systematic review of group studies in neurology

J Neuropsychol. 2011 Mar;5(Pt 1):39-55. doi: 10.1348/174866410X533660.


A growing number of studies have been addressing the relationship between theory of mind (TOM) and executive functions (EF) in patients with acquired neurological pathology. In order to provide a global overview on the main findings, we conducted a systematic review on group studies where we aimed to (1) evaluate the patterns of impaired and preserved abilities of both TOM and EF in groups of patients with acquired neurological pathology and (2) investigate the existence of particular relations between different EF domains and TOM tasks. The search was conducted in Pubmed/Medline. A total of 24 articles met the inclusion criteria. We considered for analysis classical clinically accepted TOM tasks (first- and second-order false belief stories, the Faux Pas test, Happe's stories, the Mind in the Eyes task, and Cartoon's tasks) and EF domains (updating, shifting, inhibition, and access). The review suggests that (1) EF and TOM appear tightly associated. However, the few dissociations observed suggest they cannot be reduced to a single function; (2) no executive subprocess could be specifically associated with TOM performances; (3) the first-order false belief task and the Happe's story task seem to be less sensitive to neurological pathologies and less associated to EF. Even though the analysis of the reviewed studies demonstrates a close relationship between TOM and EF in patients with acquired neurological pathology, the nature of this relationship must be further investigated. Studies investigating ecological consequences of TOM and EF deficits, and intervention researches may bring further contributions to this question.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / complications
  • Neurology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*