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How are Developments in Neurobiology Changing our View of Children? 4 Theory of Mind Creates Templates for Understanding

Dialogue between Noboru Kobayashi and Toshiyuki Sawaguchi

4 Theory of Mind Creates Templates for Understanding

Kobayashi: Could you explain how the theory of mind works in the brain in more detail?

Sawaguchi: As far as neurobiology is concerned, we have a model in our brain from the beginning and we apply the information we receive to it. Take, for example, how we recognize people's faces. Rather than analyzing the parts of the face, synthesizing them and then recognizing them as a specific face, it is now thought that a template already exists in the brain, and when it receives information, it recognizes it as a face or a particular person's face. In the same way, the theory of mind is based on the idea that we can guess what people are feeling without analyzing them each time because we have a template for understanding others.

Kobayashi: So we watch how people behave and understand how they feel and establish a kind of theory for it.

Sawaguchi: Exactly. According to epistemology in the field of neurobiology, cognition is not a matter of putting together information - we already have a template based on experience. We have a template that is based on the experiences that we have had since childhood; it tells us what people think in certain situations and what they feel when they have certain expressions. Even so, there are times when understanding escapes us. That's when we upgrade the template and try to understand people better.

Kobayashi: It seems to me that the theory of mind is created by the integration of several programs.

Sawaguchi: Yes, that's right.

Kobayashi: Each of these programs may be innate. And they are created as information-processing systems through the experiences we have.

Sawaguchi: Yes, I think so. This is just my own hypothesis, but I think that to instill a theory of mind in young people who lack the ability to understand others, we should start with at a simpler level. One way to help young people with behavioral problems who don't understand others would be to make them go to the kindergartens.

Kobayashi: You mean send them back to kindergarten.

Sawaguchi: Yes, send them back to kindergarten and have them take care of the children. They'll become attached to the little ones, have to deal with them if they cry, and will want to be liked by them, too. To do so, they will have to make an effort to understand the children.

Kobayashi: I see.

Sawaguchi: The behavior of small children is less complicated so they are easier to understand. These young people will learn that if they get angry or let their emotions get out of hand, the children won't become attached to them. They will learn that they have to try to control their emotions. That is another way the prefrontal association cortex works. They learn how to control violent emotions. So it is like killing two birds with one stone. I think having young people with behavioral problems help out in kindergartens would be effective.

Kobayashi: It might be a good idea to have them care for babies, too.

Sawaguchi: Even having a dog is helpful. Understanding how a dog feels creates attachment to the dog. The young people would have to guess when the dog is hungry or angry. Dogs are easier to understand because they are much less complicated than humans, but an animal like a hamster, without any feelings at all, wouldn't be very effective (laughter). Dogs really make you think when they give you a certain look.


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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