Psychology Grand Rounds

Brain Development, Experience and Preschoolers' Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the everyday understanding that people's observable behaviors are caused by internal, idiosyncratic mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions. The ability to explicitly reason about others' mental states typically develops rapidly between the ages of 3- to 5-years-old in children all over the world. The only known exceptions to this stereotyped developmental trajectory come from cases of neurodevelopmental disorder (such as Autism) and cases of highly abnormal social and conversational experience (such as those born deaf to hearing parents). Together, these findings suggest that theory of mind development is shaped by both endogenous neuromaturational constraints and strong exogenous experiential factors. In my talk, I will describe work that we have done that has used brain electrophysiological methods (EEG/ERP) to identify the neuromaturational factors that pace theory of mind development. I will then talk about more recent work in which we suggest that the functional significance of these neuromaturational factors may be to support the acquisition of theory of mind concepts from relevant social experiences. Together, these findings contribute to a framework theory of theory of mind development that emphasizes mutually dependent contributions of biology and experience to shape the universal emergence of this fundamental social cognitive skill.