Nav: Home

The brain has two systems for thinking about others' thoughts

March 06, 2020

In order to understand what another person thinks and how he or she will behave we must take someone else's perspective. This ability is referred to as Theory of Mind. Until recently, researchers were at odds concerning the age at which children are able to do such perspective taking. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS), University College London, and the Social Neuroscience Lab Berlin shed new light on this question in a study now published in the renowned journal PNAS. Only 4-year-olds seem to be able to understand what others think. The study reports that this unique ability emerges around 4 years of age because of the maturation of a specific brain network which enables this. Younger children are already capable of predicting others' behaviour based on what they think, but the study shows that this prediction of behaviour relies on a different brain network. The brain seems to have two different systems to take another person's perspective, and these mature at different rates.

The researchers investigated these relations in a sample of 3- to 4-year-old children with the help of a video clips that show a cat chasing a mouse. The cat watches the mouse hiding in one of two boxes. While the cat is away the mouse sneaks over to the other box, unnoticed by the cat. Thus, when the cat returns it should still believe that the mouse is in the first location.

Using eye-tracking technology, the scientists analysed the looking behaviour of their study participants and noticed: Both, the 3- and 4-year-olds expected the cat to go to the box where the mouse had originally been. That is, they predicted correctly where the cat was going to search for the mouse based on the cat's belief.

Interestingly, when the scientists asked the children directly where the cat will search for the mouse, instead of looking at their gaze, 3-year-olds answered incorrectly. Only 4-years-olds succeeded. Control conditions ensured that this was not because the younger children misunderstood the question.

The reason for this discrepancy was a different one. The study shows that different brain structures were involved in verbal reasoning about what the cat thinks as opposed to non-verbal predictions of how the cat is going to act. The researchers refer to these brain structures as regions for implicit and explicit Theory of Mind. These cortical brain regions mature at different ages to fulfill their function. The supramarginal gyrus that supports non-verbal action prediction matures earlier, and is also involved in visual and emotional perspective taking. "This enables younger children to predict how people will act. The temporoparietal junction and precuneus through which we understand what others think - and not just what they feel and see or how they will act - only develops to fulfil this function at the age of 4 years", first author Charlotte Grosse Wiesmann from the MPI CBS explains.

"In the first three years of life, children don't seem to fully understand yet what others think", says co-author Nikolaus Steinbeis from the University College London. "But there already seems to be a mechanism a basic form of perspective taking, by which very young children simply adopt the other's view."
-end-


Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Related Brain Articles:

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.
Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.
Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.
BRAIN Initiative tool may transform how scientists study brain structure and function
Researchers have developed a high-tech support system that can keep a large mammalian brain from rapidly decomposing in the hours after death, enabling study of certain molecular and cellular functions.
Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data
In a study published today in the journal BRAIN, neuroscientists led by Michael D.
Blue Brain Project releases first-ever digital 3D brain cell atlas
The Blue Brain Cell Atlas is like ''going from hand-drawn maps to Google Earth'' -- providing previously unavailable information on major cell types, numbers and positions in all 737 brain regions.
Landmark study reveals no benefit to costly and risky brain cooling after brain injury
A landmark study, led by Monash University researchers, has definitively found that the practice of cooling the body and brain in patients who have recently received a severe traumatic brain injury, has no impact on the patient's long-term outcome.
Brain cells called astrocytes have unexpected role in brain 'plasticity'
Researchers from the Salk Institute have shown that astrocytes -- long-overlooked supportive cells in the brain -- help to enable the brain's plasticity, a new role for astrocytes that was not previously known.
Largest brain study of 62,454 scans identifies drivers of brain aging
In the largest known brain imaging study, scientists from Amen Clinics (Costa Mesa, CA), Google, John's Hopkins University, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, San Francisco evaluated 62,454 brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans of more than 30,000 individuals from 9 months old to 105 years of age to investigate factors that accelerate brain aging.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.