Brain-Imaging Device Adds To Evidence That Babies Have Basic ‘Theory Of Mind’


Researchers used a brain-imaging device that tracked babies' temporal-parietal junction in the brain. Results show infants possess "theory of mind" similar to that of adults.

Near-infrared spectroscopy is a noninvasive technique, which measures how light spreads on the surface of the brain. The idea is that distribution of light varies when a brain region has more activity. This variation in its dispersal is a response to changes in the blood oxygenation in the portion of the brain that is being scanned.

In this study, the near-infrared spectroscopy allowed researchers from the University of Illinois to compare the changes in the brains of both babies and adults as they watch the same videos.

Theory Of Mind

The researchers led by Daniel Hyde, a university professor, observed the brains of 7-month-old babies while they watch videos of an actor who pretends to fail to see that an object was already moved to a different location. They saw that the babies' TPJ, the portion of the brain that processes beliefs, reflected an activity similar to that of the adults who were asked to watch the same videos.

Hyde explains that particular activity suggests that the babies' brains may distinguish when others hold true and false beliefs.

The result of the scans using the near-infrared spectroscopy supported previous studies asserting that babies have at least a basic of "theory of mind," Hyde adds.

"Theory of mind would be your ability to think about other people's mental states: the thoughts, beliefs or anything else that goes on in the head of another person," Hyde expounds.

Hyde says it is remarkable for babies to possess basic comprehension of other's mental state. He, however, highlights that it would only be logical for them to have this capability since they need to learn many things.

Temporal-Parietal Junction

For a separate study, Hyde and his team recorded activity in the TPJ of adults who were asked to watch the same video of the actor failing to see that a toy was moved to another location. They compared these results to the brain scans done with babies for the present study.

"The logic is that if this region responds in a similar way in infants, you can draw a more direct comparison to what adults and older children are doing," Hyde said.

Indeed, they saw that the infants reflected an uptick in their TPJs when they recognized that the actor hold a false belief when the toy was moved to a different location. The uptick was similar to the activity seen with adult's TPJ.

Hyde, however, clarified that their new finding does not mean that infants possess a fully developed theory of mind.

Instead, their study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, will be an important contribution to understanding people's thoughts and beliefs.

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