Putting myself in your mental shoes.

#freshfromthelab: Prof Ferguson on the development of theory of mind in adolescents and young adults.


This week's CBCD seminar by Prof Heather Ferguson gave us a long-term perspective on arguably the most useful thing parents can learn about psychology: theory of mind.

Theory of mind is the ability to put yourself in somebody else's mental shoes. It refers to when you realise that other people have an internal life just like yours, with thoughts, expectations and points of view that are possibly different from yours, but governed by similar laws. Look at the guys in the picture below (sourced from this website). Each of them would agree with their friends if they took the other's perspective.


Perspective-taking is one of the elements of theory of mind but not the only one. Theory of mind also includes, for instance, YOUR ability to predict what I will think based upon the knowledge that I possess (and NOT that YOU posses).


NOT my hubby by the way.

For instance, imagine that I put my slippers in the shoe shelf by the door. I go out to meet my girlfriends. While I am outside, Francesco (5 years old) wants to play me a trick and he puts them under his own bed. When I come back into the house, will my husband expect me to look for the slippers in the shoe shelf or under Francesco's bed? He will probably expect me to look for them on the shoe shelf, right? Because he knows that I do not have access to the information that Francesco has hidden them elsewhere. So he might wink at me when I come in, gesturing towards Francesco, so that I can play the game of looking for the slippers without being actually worried about not finding them (parents are such cheats!)


We'll talk about parents in a second, but first let us think about Leo, Francesco's brother who is almost 4 years old. Where will he expect me to look for my slippers? It might come as a surprise to you, but he is quite likely to expect me to look for the slipper under Francesco's bed. He knows the slippers are there. And he does not know that I do not know. So from Leo point of view, it makes sense that I look for the slippers under the bed.


Thanks to a few decades if theory of mind research, I can be confident that Leo's expectations, although surprising to me, are spot-on for his age. Figuring out that I cannot have learned about Francesco's activities while I was chatting with my girlfriends in the coffee shops is actually quite a challenge for a small brain. It's a challenge for children under 4 to do this, but they are not completely oblivious either. From as early as 14 months, babies show some signs of knowing that funny stuff happens to people's behaviour when they have missed out on something. When they’re young, they don’t quite know yet how to interpret it or use it to direct their own behaviour. They still need quite a bit of practice (learn more about it for instance here).


To learn about the many implications theory of mind has for parenting, you can always attend our Workshop or Webinar (do get in touch if you would like to receive info about upcoming events). Here, however, we will ask just one question: how can a baby manipulate you, if she does not even know that you have your own thoughts, beliefs and expectations?


Prof Ferguson's research has shown that adolescents and young adults can take on someone else's perspective and act upon it. However, as soon as they are put under cognitive pressure, they suddenly become a lot less good at it. What I found most striking, is that she used the N400 ERP component (remember, we spoke about ERPs a couple of weeks ago when discussing Anna Gui's research? Those blips in the electrical activity of our brains that are related to specific events) to show that even adults take in the world first from their own point of view and only after that, they can switch perspectives, if they are required to (and if they are not too tired, too overwhelmed, too sleep-deprived, too lazy or too busy to do so!) Have a look at this and all of Prof Ferguson's papers if you want to have a really good perspective of what Theory of Mind is all about and how it develops throughout life.

Most importantly, next time your child does not get you or throws a tantrum in the supermarket, remind yourself that there is no way she can see things from your perspective yet. And yes, by all means, deal with her behaviour in a firm and gentle way, but do not take it personally. She will figure you out in due time (and then you might come to miss these times of blessed ignorance!).


Equally, when you find yourself expecting a grown-up behaviour from your little one... notice it, stop doing it (if you can), but don't beat yourself up. Prof Ferguson's research shows us that it is indeed hard to take someone else's perspective. Good thing that our brain keeps improving at that all the way into our 40's... and that motherhood might bring some superpowers in that domain too!

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