Understanding the mental state of others is an important developmental stage. This is referred to as theory of mind (TOM) in psychology. Between the ages of four and five children start to grasp the mental states of others (Callaghan, Rochat, Lillard, Claux, Odden, Itakura, Tapanya, & Singh, 2005).
It is important to understand the socioemotional states of others to interact in a social environment. Recent studies have suggested that language has an effect on theory of mind development.
Theory of mind is measured by false belief tasks. These are task designed to assess children’s understanding of the mental states of others. There are three general tasks to assess theory of mind. A change of location tasks involves having a character place an object somewhere and then leave the room. When the character is gone, the object is moved. When the character returns, the participant is asked to say where the character would look for the object. If the participant understands the character’s state of mind, they will say the character would look in the location the object was originally placed (Cheung, Hsuan-Chih, Creed, Ng, Wang, & Mo, 2004).
In another task, the unexpected contents task, the participant is given a box with something inside that does not reflect the type of box. The participant is then asked what they thought was in the box at first, and what other people would think was in the box (Cheung, et al., 2004).
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The third false belief task, appearance-reality, involves the participant judging the nature of an object that resembles something else, like a sponge that looks like a rock. The experimenter asks the participant what they first though the object was, and what someone else would think it was (Cheung et al., 2004).
Development of theory of mind is generally hypothesized to be universal (Callaghan et al., 2005).
There is evidence for biological precursors to theory of mind development but they may be differential based on language (Lee, Olson, & Torrance, 1999; Wellman, Fang, Liu, Zhu, & Liu, 2006; Kobayashi, Glover, & Temple, 2007) The role of language may frame false belief questions and effect scores on those tasks (Cheung et al., 2004).
Callaghan et al. (2005) used a simplified version of naturalistic TOM to determine universal onset in multiple cultures. They used a false belief task in which the child participated in deceiving another as to the location of an object. Two-hundred sixty seven children from a wide range of socio economic statuses between 30 and 72 months were participants in Callaghan et al.’s (2005) study. Participants were from Canada, Peru, India, Thailand, and Samoa. The experimenter placed a trinket under a bowl and another person in the room left. The experimenter then asked the child to move the trinket, or in some cases, moved the trinket themselves. The participant was then asked about the behaviour of the other who had left: where they would think the object was and why. Callaghan et al. (2005) discovered that children in all the cultures studied began to understand false beliefs at the same time. Most kids understood TOM by four and all children understood by five years old (Callaghan et al., 2005).
This undermines hypothesized cultural influence in TOM development. One exception was deaf children, who sometimes did not perform well on false belief tasks until late teens. Callaghan et al. (2005) proposed that the way language was imparted to deaf children influenced performance on false belief tasks. Conversation may be important to developing representation of the socioemotional states of others. Universal language precursors worked with conversation to impart TOM in children (Callaghan et al., 2005).
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Kobayashi et al. (2007) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the linguistically dependant neural correlates of TOM. Twelve Japanese-English-speaking bilingual children and 12 English monolingual children participated. Kobayashi et al. (2007) employed a non-TOM story as a baseline and measured TOM comprehension with a non-verbal cartoon task as well as a story task. The participants showed no difference in average performance for TOM comprehension. Both the bilingual and monolingual speakers showed bilateral ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) activation during the TOM tasks. Baseline measures were averaged out to get specific activation patterns. This area has been correlated with reading socioemotional cues in others (Kobayash et al., 2007).
This skill was essential to conceptualize emotions in socially meaningful ways. There was some difference in the activation pattern of the vmPFC between the two languages. The Japanese story condition elicited more right-lateralized activation of the vmPFC whereas the English story demonstrated a more bilateralized pattern (Kobayashi et al., 2007).
The English story was also correlated with greater activation of the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ), a brain region associated with distinguishing self agency (Kobayashi et al., 2007).
Kobayashi et al.’s (2007) fMRI study suggested that there were neural correlates associated with TOM development that were related to the language that TOM tasks were administered in.
Wellman et al.’s (2006) study examined whether TOM reflected universal or cultural based language cues. Children speak about desires before they speak about diverse beliefs or false beliefs (Wellman et al., 2006).
Chinese parents emphasize knowledge acquisition over metacognition by speaking about “knowing.” Wellman et al. (2006) measured the sequence of acquisition of TOM understanding in Chinese children. Several false belief tasks were administered to 92 preschool children in Beijing. The researchers used verbs that implied neutrality in the questions or verbs that implied that the speaker falsely believed a condition. Performance was better when words implying false belief were used (Wellman et al., 2006).
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Wellman et al. (2006) found a consistent sequence for development of TOM in preschool. First children understood basic desires, and then acknowledged that people have cognitive mental states. Understanding hidden emotion came next as kids generally understood TOM. Chinese children understood knowledge-ignorance framed false belief questions best. Children in the United States understood diverse-beliefs framed questions best. This reflected the emphasis Chinese parents placed on knowledge acquisition (Wellman et al., 2006).
The language used in Chinese suggests people are either knowledgeable or ignorant about a belief state (Wellman et al., 2006).
In English, language indicates separate desires in false belief tasks. There is some difference in the nature of TOM comprehension between languages.
Standard Chinese uses a variety of different belief verbs. Some verbs are neutral, like xiang. Dang is used in situations when someone falsely believed and yiwei is closer to that meaning but not a strong. Lee et al. (1999) researched the effect of different verbs on false belief tasks. First Lee et al. (1999) had to perform a ranking on the nature of belief words in Standard Chinese. The researchers learned that Chinese speakers thought dang would be the most appropriate verb to use when someone had a false belief. The second experiment engaged 173 3-5 year olds in false belief tasks. Lee et al. (1999) administered the change of location, unexpected contents, and appearance-reality false belief tasks. The researchers discovered that the use of different belief verbs significantly affected performance on false belief tasks. Children between four and five on average correctly reported false beliefs when tasks used yiwei and dang (Lee et al., 1999).
Until age 5 children performed poorly on false belief tasks using the xiang verb. Lee et al. (1999) hypothesized that children used xiang in situations where a belief was true, and did not understand it could be used in a false sense until they fully understood TOM. According to Chinese speakers yiwei is the more appropriate verb to use in false belief tasks (Lee et al., 1999).
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Once children overcame the semantic underextention for xiang, they more readily understood false belief tasks and performed better in all conditions. Even children of three years correctly interpreted false belief in the appearance-reality task using the dang verb (Lee et al., 1999).
According to the first experiment Lee et al. (1999) performed; dang was the most appropriate verb to use to express a false belief. Aside from that exception performance on false belief tasks was consistent with American children (Lee et al., 1999).
Development of TOM in a different language was consistent but language had some impact on false belief tasks, as was evidenced by the dang verb exception.
Cheung et al. (2004) further investigated the influence of language on theory of mind development. They hypothesized that complement syntax is a less important factor than general language ability to TOM development. Cheung et al. (2004) performed two experiments. The first experiment used 39 English speaking children to examine the pure effect of complement structure on TOM development. The participants in the second experiment were 34 Cantonese speaking children. The participants in both experiments were aged between 3 and 5 years. Cantonese speaking children were used because Cantonese did not distinguish between infinitival and tensed complementation verbs (Cheung et al., 2004).
The researchers hypothesized that TOM was related to tensed complementation verbs only. There were confounds in English between belief verbs and the complements that followed them. Using Cantonese allowed the researchers to separate verb semantics from complement structure. Cheung et al. (2004) also examined the effect of the temporal orientation of verbs on TOM. Realis, present-oriented complements, and irrealis, future-oriented complements were identified to describe that effect. In their first experiment Cheung et al. (2004) tested the pure effect of complement structure by holding main verb semantics constant. They tested both tensed and infinitival complements, correlated them with TOM and evaluated them against general language comprehension. Cheung et al. (2004) found no performance difference for infinitival versus tensed complement verbs. Language, TOM, and complementation were all intercorrelated. Since infinitival and tensed complement verbs were both correlated with TOM it speaks against the unique role of tensed complement verbs (Cheung et al., 2004).
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Complementation language did not uniquely predict TOM; it was correlated more highly with general language comprehension.
Cheung et al.’s (2004) second experiment attempted to isolate the effect of verb semantics from complementation. Want and say in Cantonese were contrasted in order to hold complement structure constant. Cantonese did not distinguish between tensed and infinitival complements. Cheung et al. (2004) also compared their results in their second experiment with general language comprehension. The results in the second experiment were similar to the first. Understanding complex complements was related to TOM but TOM was more highly correlated with general language comprehension (Cheung et al., 2004).
Verb semantics had an effect on complement understanding but little effect on TOM. Children did better on tasks using want rather than say. This supports the hypothesis that children understand desires before beliefs (Cheung et al., 2004).
Language had an effect on TOM but general comprehension was more highly correlated with TOM than complementation understanding.
The role of language on the development of TOM is complex. Children score differently depending on what verb is used to assess TOM with false belief tasks (Lee et al., 1999; Cheung et al., 2004).
Chinese children scored very well when a verb implying false belief was used, even three year olds who do not have TOM yet (Lee et al., 1999).
This may have been equivalent to a loaded question. Lee et al.’s (1999) used an independent measures design so it cannot reliably be said how much performance carried over to other conditions. Three year olds in other conditions did not score accurately on false belief tasks (Lee et al., 1999).
Cheung et al. (2004) reported greater scores on false belief tasks when they used irrealis verbs in their questions. The researchers noted that irrealis verbs are less likely to be used in everyday language discussing false beliefs (Cheung et al., 2004).
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The verbs used in false belief tasks do have an effect on scores but it is a methodological effect and does not pertain directly to TOM.
Callaghan et al. (2005) used a non-verbal task to assess TOM in different cultures. They found universal onset of TOM generally and no difference between cultures. The one exception Callaghan et al. (2005) discovered was a late onset of TOM in non-signing deaf children. The researchers suggested that conversation facilitates communication skills needed to understand states of minds. If that were true, why did TOM develop at all in the deaf non-signing group? There may be more subtle aspects to TOM, such as observing behaviour visually, that are not measured for with false belief tasks. Since the onset of TOM was universal in the cultures studied in Callaghan et al.’s (2005) research; performance on non-verbal false belief tasks was consistent. If verbal tasks were used in the study and language was balanced, different results may have been observed.
Though onset of TOM was consistent, brain activation was different in the two different languages studied by Kobayashi et al. (2007).
There was a different activation pattern in the vmPFC and right TPJ for false belief tasks in Japanese and English. The general activation pattern suggested a common cognitive process, but language-specific areas were differentially activated in the two different languages (Kobayashi et al., 2007).
A common cognitive process supports Callaghan et al.’s (2005) findings of synchronous TOM onset. Different language-specific activation suggests that there are some TOM components that are language related. Perhaps TOM can be separated in to two different, but related, processes. Children showed consistent performance in Callaghan et al.’s (2005) non-verbal task. Their tasks involved acting out the false belief task. Kobayashi et al.’s (2007) participants also showed consistent performance but different activation dependant on language. Kobayashi et al. (2007) used cartoon images for the non-verbal condition of their false belief task. The difference in language-specific activation may be due to reading and looking compared to participating in a task. One cognitive pathway for TOM may be for observing other’s state of mind, and another pathway may be for influencing or acting upon another’s mental state.
There is consensus on the general onset of TOM: around 4 years old children start to get it, and by age 5 most children understood it (Lee et al., 1999; Cheung et al., 2004; Callaghan et al., 2005; Wellman et al., 2006).
The semantic precursors to development of TOM are not agreed upon. Callaghan et al. (2005) discovered consistent cross cultural onset of TOM, but used a non-verbal task. Kobayashi et al. (2007) found a common cognitive process but some language specific differences. The differences themselves did not influence scores on false belief and may have been related to another aspect of the task. Lee et al. (1999) and Cheung et al. (2004) discovered that specific verbs and sentence structure were correlated with TOM. Cheung et al. (2004) found a strong correlation with general language comprehension and TOM suggesting a common precursor or similar developmental process. The nature of understanding TOM was fundamentally different in the two cultures studied by Wellman et al. (2006).
Though Chinese people understood false beliefs within the framework of knowledge and Americans with beliefs, TOM scores were not different in either culture. There is some influence of language on TOM but most are methodological and not significant for general development. A non-linguistic precursor is most likely for TOM, but develops at the same time as language comprehension.
Many possibilities exist for future research on TOM. Kobayashi et al. (2007) used fMRI to study TOM with two different observation tasks. As technology progresses a more portable version of an fMRI may become available. This would allow studies of TOM with the participant as an actor. It would also allow cross cultural studies to be completed with greater ease. Increased portability of fMRI could allow TOM studies using fMRI in cultures that have little or no access to modern medical facilities. Brain lesion studies are good ways to identify critical areas for cognitive processes. A portable fMRI would make accessing participants with brain lesions easier.
In Callaghan et al.’s (2005) study they used a non-verbal false belief task to assess TOM in multiple cultures. A study that used a verbal false belief task but balanced for language would determine if there was any difference in TOM development and language across cultures. This would be a very difficult study to accomplish. Language varies very subtly across cultures and it would be difficult to perfectly match. There are many other contributions to TOM by culture and it would be difficult to identify and balance for all of them. The best way to accomplish such a study would be to develop some balanced man made languages and incorporate significant variables. Separate languages to measure semantics, word order, socialization, and conversation’s contribution to TOM could be created. The difficulty comes with this study is imparting the language to participants. Ethically it is impossible to put children in a study that removes them from society. With further advancement in artificial intelligence, it may be possible to program languages in to computers. TOM would have to be fully understood to be able to program it in to a computer in the first place. If a correlate to TOM could be found in lab animals a study could be developed to balance for language in lab animals.
Language’s contribution to TOM is complex. Studies that balance for aspects of language would be useful in order to see what aspects of language correlate with TOM. Brain scans would be helpful in determining what brain regions are correlated with TOM in different languages. As research continues causal biological precursors to TOM could be identified and tested for.