Theory of Mind in Infants

With our boys being preemies they exist in this weird place where there is no rule book. They were born four months ago but are considered one month when it comes to development. However they are displaying some more advanced development while lacking in other areas. They have both rolled from their belly to their backs and will put pressure on their feet when stood up, but they still do not have full head control and their speech hasn’t developed to produce vowel sounds.

With our babies’ development existing in this weird limbo I decided to look up when children develop theory of mind. That is the understanding that other people think and react differently than you. Theory of mind is one of the most crucial aspects of being a human but it is not unique to humans. Have you ever played fetch with a dog and they’ve lost track of the ball in the air, and when they look at you in confusion you’ve pointed to where the ball went and they retrieve it. That is theory of mind. The dog knew that you knew something different than them. That you knew where the ball went and they followed your instructions and were rewarded by finding the ball.

The big thing with theory of mind is it is the key to empathy. If we view another person’s actions and automatically think them foolish because they should know or should believe some knowledge that we have and assume they have then we have failed at theory of mind and being a decent human being. In fact, while I was reading through the traits of theory of mind I was struck by how many come across as emotions and reactions that would be viewed as highly developed. Some might even read something like, “Different people have different, but potentially true, beliefs about the same thing,” (hanen.org ) as a radical political statement.

By the age of five theory of mind should be fully developed in children, but head out on the highway and you will soon come to realize that there are many adults that never fully developed this psychological function. If you’d like to be dehumanized and abused then head out on the highways of America. Think of how you view other drivers on the road. Who cut you off? Was it the gray mini-van or was it Mary Anne Stewart single mother of three screaming children trying to make it to a doctor’s appointment on time? When we drive we tend to forget our theory of mind and lose our empathy.

Since I’ve had children my views on a lot of things have developed and advanced rapidly. I will not say they have changed but I have reached a new level of understanding. My father loved to tell me to do as he says and not as he does (he was joking every time he said this), but this is an important statement. Over the course of our lives we have all developed bad habits and irrational actions that we know are wrong. We can explain the reasons behind our actions to our children and let them know our job as parents is to help them to not make the mistakes we have and to not end up following the same harmful habits and rituals we engage in. But in order for this to work our children first have to know that we posses knowledge that they do not, and that is part of theory of mind.

It is also a part of theory of mind that is lacking in many adults. Do you know how many debates I’ve gotten into about baseball where the other person uses the phrase, “I don’t see it,” this has always driven my half insane. It doesn’t matter what they see. It only matters what is or what can be. I also recently watched a documentary on the flat earth society and they all lacked this aspect of theory of mind. They would only trust what they could see and if they couldn’t see it with their own two eyes then they would not believe it was true. During the course of the documentary they conducted two experiments that proved the earth was round but refused to believe their own evidence. So there was more going on than a lack of theory of mind, but it was part of it.

Disbelief in experts and scientific research is an increasing problem in America and it makes me wonder about people’s development of theory of mind. Theory of mind isn’t something that just happens. It is developed through learning and play. My little boys current favorite game is to wave their hands in front of their faces. When we start doing this as well the imitate our actions and learn from observing and mimicry. Mimicry is one of the earliest and most important aspects of human pack development and it starts in infancy and will eventually lead to the development of theory of mind and empathy.

It does make me think about how we got to the state we’re in. Education begins in the home, but we live in a country that overvalues work and is based around a persons job being their everything. Ask ten Americans who they are and how many do you think would reply with their occupation? We’ve all heard the stories of children talking about how their father worked from sun-up to sun down to provide for his family and this made him a hero. Now we’re living in a world where mothers and fathers are working 10-12 hours a day to afford a life below that of the previous generation. If so many of the current adults in this country never developed proper theory of mind and empathy what is going to happen to the next generation. The generation that is daily discarded at daycare and spends far too little time learning from mother and father.

The thing I want most for my children is a world different than the one we’ve inherited. One where the emphasis is on empathy and the family and family isn’t strictly defined by misogynist, homophobes, and bigots. Theory of mind is the basis of empathy. It is how we can look at the world and think not what can the world do for me but what can I do to make the world a better place for the next generation.

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