The Theory of mind it refers to the ability we have to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and understand that each person perceives, feels, thinks, wants or believes in different things. This leads us to a concept such as empathy and the difficulty that some show to put themselves in the place of the other.
Children since 4 years old They are able to understand that others have thoughts, intentions and desires that determine their ways of acting. They are also able to recognize that people differ in their thoughts and intentions, and that these differences lead to differences in behavior.
People with autism have difficulties in this capacity that allows us put ourselves in the place of the other.
Researchers in "Theory of mind" (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985) designed a so-called Sally-Ann or "false belief" experiment. In the experiment, the child observes how the experimenter represents a story with two dolls: Sally has a basket and Ann has a box. Sally puts a ball in her basket before leaving the room. Ann, when Sally is out, takes the ball out of the basket and puts it in her box. Sally returns to the room.
The question that the child is asked is the following: Where will Sally look for her ball?
A person with a good theory of mind will point out that Sally will look for the marble in the basket because she does not know that Ann has changed the ball and put it in her box. The child with autism, on the other hand, will say that Sally will look for it in the box, because she does not understand that Sally still thinks that the ball is in the basket where she had left it, does not understand that her actions are based on a wrong thinking (false belief), does not understand that others have their own thoughts (mental states) that may be different from reality and that may differ from their own.
Mark Haddon in his novel "The curious incident of the dog at midnight" describes the difficulties in Theory of Mind of the protagonist of his novel Cristopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome:
One day Julie (Cristopher's teacher) sat at the desk next to mine and put a tube of Smarties candies on the desk, and said:
- Christopher, what do you think is in here?
And I said:
Then he took the lid off the Smarties tube and tilted it and a little red pencil came out of it, and Julie laughed and said:
- They're not Smarties, it's a pencil.
Then he put the red pencil back into the tube of Smarties and put the cap back on. Then he said:
- If your mommy came in now and we asked her what's inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say? - because then I used to call Mother Mommy, not Mother.
And I said:
- A pencil.
That was because when I was little I did not understand that other people had minds. And Julie told Mother and Father that that would always be very difficult for me. But now it's not difficult for me. Because I decided it was kind of a puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way to solve it.
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