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How are Developments in Neurobiology Changing our View of Children? 3 The Significance of the Theory of Mind

Dialogue between Noboru Kobayashi and Toshiyuki Sawaguchi

3 The Significance of the Theory of Mind

Sawaguchi: "Theory of mind" refers to the ability to infer what someone is thinking and feeling by observing his or her gestures and behavior without analyzing them each time. We have recently discovered that this ability is attributable to the prefrontal association cortex.

Kobayashi: A child begins to form this theory of mind at the age of three or four.

Sawaguchi: Yes. Studies on brain imaging have confirmed this ability only recently although psychologists have long suspected it. In my opinion, this ability can only be nurtured by actually having many different kinds of experiences.

Kobayashi: You mean that children won't develop this ability unless they are allowed to play?

Sawaguchi: Children try to develop their social relationships through actual experiences that they have as they grow up. Parents stop children from having certain experiences, thinking that they are dangerous or might lead to bullying. But, by doing this, parents might actually be thwarting the development of the theory of the mind. In this situation, even if children do develop this ability, it doesn't grow beyond guessing how parents might react if they do something or what the parents might think. Their theory of mind is limited in terms of their understanding of others and ends up only being a reaction to what their parents would say.

Unless their theory of mind is fully nurtured, when these children reach puberty, they bully others or may even end up committing terrible crimes in a detached manner because they don't understand how others feel.

Kobayashi: What method was used to establish that there is a relation between the prefrontal association cortex and the theory of mind?

Sawaguchi: This connection became clear through some very basic research. In the case of adults, they are shown photographs of people and asked to guess what they are feeling based on their facial expressions....

Kobayashi: And then you see what part of the brain becomes active?

Sawaguchi: Yes. We saw the prefrontal association cortex light up and become active. It is said that the autistic are not able to read what others are thinking and feeling, and in the control test, we have found that they do not have the ability that we call the theory of mind. There are some who can to a certain extent, but even in these cases, there is not much activity in the prefrontal association cortex. The prefrontal association cortex is not active in people who are not capable of the theory of mind and even when they tried hard to use it, it did not become very active. This sort of research showed us that there is a relation between the theory of mind and the prefrontal association cortex.

Kobayashi: Physical experiences are said to be important in developing this ability, but there are so few places where children can have these experiences nowadays. They can't run around and play in forests and fields anymore because there aren't many left nowadays.

Sawaguchi: That is a big problem. Somatic sensation is something deep and strong. The type of cutaneous sensation between a mother and child represented by holding and hugging is very important, and in the same way, experiences that allow children to have somatic and cutaneous sensations with each other have a strong impact. This is what develops the theory of mind that is a major function of the brain.

Kobayashi: I understand that theory of the mind is the ability to be conscious of and relate to others, and to infer what they feel, but what is the basis for assuming that it leads to integrated intelligence?

Sawaguchi: It has been proposed that the theory of mind is the origin of language. It is often said that language was invented in the process of human evolution as a means of communication, but communication starts with inferring what people are feeling. In other words, there is this process of symbolizing and understanding the emotions or behavior of the other.

In other words, language has a basic function besides communication, and that is "representation." This is the process of representing a thing or phenomenon, the other or the self using symbols or concepts and simulating the world and how one behaves in the world. The most fundamental function of language is this representation and simulation. This can also be called thinking. One could say that human intelligence has developed in order to know the mind and behavior of the self and other.

Kobayashi: I see. Monkeys are also said to have a theory of the mind, aren't they?

Sawaguchi: Primatologists are divided on this question. Some say they do and others say they don't.

Kobayashi: According to the primatologist, David Premack, they do.

Sawaguchi: They might have something that is an incipient form of the theory of mind, but I think that it is characteristic of humans only. With the development of a theory of mind, it becomes possible to deceive others or communicate through symbols. Bonobo chimpanzees are the closest species to humans, but their abilities do not even come close to those of humans.

Kobayashi: In other words, the group play of children is not same as the group play of young monkeys in that it entails highly intelligent activities.

Sawaguchi: That's right. The age of three or four when children begin to actively use language coincides with the formation of the theory of mind. Only humans use language in a developed manner and have a developed theory of mind. A primitive form of language is said to have been first used about three million years ago, and this was probably to understand the feelings of others.

The theory of mind and understanding others was the basic condition for the development of language, or it could be the opposite - that language existed first and it was used by the theory of the mind. The timing of the evolutionary origin of both and the reasons are thought to be about the same. No one has made this claim yet, but research seems to point to this.

The theory of mind is an innate ability, as is language ability. But, unless a person is exposed to language in the environment, he or she will be unable to speak properly despite having this innate ability. In the same way, if children lack the environment or opportunity to develop the theory of mind, they won't be well-rounded or mature adults later. This is the reason that I stress the importance of the theory of mind so strongly.

Both parents and teachers grow concerned about the development of intelligence if a child does not talk, but they don't worry much about the theory of mind or whether or not the child understands the feelings and behavior of others. This is a serious problem.


"Noboru KOBAYASHI, M.D. Pediatrician and Director, CRN Born in Tokyo in 1927. Doctor of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Tokyo, 1954. Books include Human Science, Kodomo wa mirai de aru (Children are Our Future), Kodomogaku, Sodatsu sodateru fureai no kosodate (Reciprocal Development Through Child-raising). Toshiyuki SAWAGUCHI, Ph.D. Professor of Neurobiology, Hokkaido University School of Medicine Born in Tokyo in 1959. Majored in biology, Faculty of Science, Hokkaido University. Doctor of Science, Kyoto University. Specializes in cognitive neuroscience and primatology. Research interests include mechanisms within the brain related to thought and self and evolution of the brain and cognitive function. Publications include Wagamama na no (The Selfish Brain), Watakushi wa no no doko ni iru no ka? (Where is the Self in the Brain?), and Yoji kyoiku to no (Early Childhood Education and the Brain)."
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