When I interviewed a primatologist and a cognitive neuroscientist for a story I did last month about bullying and empathy, we discussed what scientists call a "theory of mind" -- the understanding that someone else has different thoughts and emotions than our own, a key component of empathy.
One of the classic tests for theory of mind is the "Sally Anne test" in which a child is shown a scene with two dolls or puppets, Sally and Anne. A toy is placed inside a basket in the room with both Sally and Anne present. When Sally leaves the room, Anne moves the toy to another box. When Sally returns to the room, where will she look for the toy? Children who don't grasp theory of mind yet will assume Sally has the same information they do and will look for the toy in the new location where Anne moved it. Children who pass the test understand that Sally still thinks the toy is in the basket where she left it and will look for it there, thus taking Sally's perspective.
A story in the New York Times cites research showing that this ability may appear much sooner in human children than previously thought, using an animation with the same idea as the Sally Anne task, but a simpler scenario.
Infants as young as 7 months have the ability to perceive and understand another person's point of view, according to a new study in the journal Science.
In his book Our Inner Ape, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that "theory-of-mind" experiments peformed on apes that supposedly showed that apes don't have this ability were flawed because they asked apes to take a human's perspective.
When comparing apes and children, one problem is that the experimenter is invariably human, so that only the apes face a species barrier. And who says that apes believe that people are subject to the same laws as ourselves? To them, we must seem from a different planet.
De Waal talks about a creative experiment that tested a chimpanzee's theory of mind regarding what another chimp was thinking, which cut out the human experimenter. Chimps were shown to know what other chimps knew about the location of food and use that knowledge to their advantage.
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