The Status of Language in the Development of a Theory of Mind
The study of the development of 'theory of mind' skills in children
became popular when the false-belief task was invented in the 1980's,
providing cognitive scientists with the focus of a clear experimental
paradigm. This tested the ability of the young child to attribute
false beliefs to others in order to explain their actions. Researchers
then began to investigate the developmental stages through which
children acquire these theory of mind abilities.
This essay will examine the nature of this acquisition process,
studying two opposing views of theory of mind development in the young
child; whether it can be explained by the modular nature of the
cognitive process, where the ability is innate but must be triggered
by input from the child's environment, or whether it exists as a
developing theory, a set of causal principles progressively formulated
by the child through observation and hypothesis formation. We also
consider the role played by the language faculty, particularly the
question of whether the acquisition of a natural language is causally
necessary for the development of a theory of mind in the young child.
A 'theory of mind' refers to the cognitive ability to interpret,
predict and explain the behaviour of others in terms of their
underlying mental states. This theory is universal among all normal
humans, and becomes accessible during childhood. It is also
metarepresentational. It demands that we not only employ propositional
attitudes, but also that we employ them about propositional attitudes;
we have beliefs about the beliefs of ourselves and others. This also
applies in cases where the embedded belief is false.
The original false belief test pioneered by Wimmer and Perner ,
involved a character, Maxi, who places some chocolate in some location
and then leaves the room. The chocolate is moved to a different
location, and the child is then asked where Maxi will look for the
chocolate when he returns. The child succeeds this task if he
understands that Maxi believes that the chocolate is where he left it,
thereby attributing a false belief to Maxi; the child is able to
represent not just the state of the world, but also Maxi's
representation of the world.
This leads us to ask the obvious developmental question of how this
concept of belief and therefore the theory of mind, is acquired. The
suggestion that it is learnt is dubious, because of the particularly
abstract nature of mental states; children are eventually able to make
predictions about mental states that they cannot hear, feel or see.
The alternative is to propose that the capacity to acquire a theory of
mind has an innate basis.
The Development of Theory of Mind
The Modularist Approach
The modularist approach is...