What is theory of mind? Implications for mind, brain and culture
McGovern Institute and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT
Nearly all research on “theory of mind” has focussed on three kinds of inference: (i) explaining observed behaviour in terms of inferred mental states (given she did that, what did she want?); (ii) morally evaluating observed behaviour in terms of mental states (how much blame does she deserve for causing that harm, given what she believed and wanted?); or (ii) predicting future behaviour from mental states (given she believes that, what will she do next?). My own work on the neural basis of theory of mind likewise mostly focusses on these inferences. We have characterized a domain-specific representation of other people’s beliefs, desires and intentions and studied its cortical implementation. However, these days I think that the scientific concept of theory of mind has been seriously impoverished, and the focus on a narrow set of operationalizations of this important cognitive capacity is limiting scientific progress. In particular, I think we need to focus more on theory of mind: (iv) about the causes of emotions, and (v) as a causal model that supports intentional intervention. For future work, I will argue that we should focus on how people reason about other minds in order to try to change them.