The Web of Life (126-4) Theory of Mind


The intelligence of our evolutionary cousin, the chimpanzee, closely resembles our own. While we left the jungle to pillage the planet, chimp homesteading acumen surpasses ours in some ways. Chimpanzees more readily recognize the offspring of chimp mothers they have never seen before than people can of human youngsters and their mothers.

A male chimp – Ayuma – was able to recall a random series of 9 single-digit numbers after seeing it for just a fraction of second. In the same test, humans are nowhere near as competent.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others: that desires, intentions, thoughts, and knowledge are mental possessions, and may diverge among different living beings. Theory of mind is self-awareness coupled with the recognition that different self-awareness may exist in others.

The evolution of a theory of mind ultimately derives from its role in facilitating the formation of social bonds. ~ American psychologist Robert Seyfarth & American zoologist Dorothy Cheney

Human infants cannot recognize their own mirrored reflections until they are about 18 months old. Most develop the ability by the age of 2. There are exceptions. Autism delays self-recognition. 30% of autistics never learn it, nor do many of the mentally disturbed.

About the same time babies begin recognizing their own reflection, they start to notice that others have thoughts and feelings of their own. This dawning of sociality is slow to mature. Children only develop a cursory sense of theory of mind at 3 to 4 years of age.

Theory of mind is the cognitive equivalent of empathy and is its prerequisite. Empathy is an imagined projection of another’s emotional state: sympathetically identifying another’s behavior as being in a context that one has emotively experienced. A creature capable of empathy interprets that another being may have emotional states.

Interestingly, human babies exercise empathy long before they conceptually understand it from a theory-of-mind perspective. Neonate response to the sound of another’s cries shows empathy as involving innate knowledge: an inborn conceptualization of distress.

One of the striking characteristics of autism is the absence of empathy. Lack of empathy is shared by psychopaths, who do, paradoxically, often have an intense sense of theory of mind.

Theory of mind is not directly observable. It can only be inferred.

Numerous birds demonstrate theory of mind with their anticipation of future events and how others perceive similar situations. Scrub jay caching is exemplary, as is the foraging strategy of puffbirds, in anticipating the behavior patterns of army ants on the march.

Many more animals can be credited with theory of mind than commonly attributed. For example, for friendship to occur, participants must cognize that the other party has a similar interest in mind. Such understanding of intent is especially striking in interspecies’ friendships.