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Neural systems involved in 'theory of mind'

Key Points

  • The term 'theory of mind' (ToM) refers to our ability to understand and reason about the beliefs of others. What are the neural substrates of this ability? A key issue relates to the question of whether a core ToM system actually exists, as opposed to a series of co-opted systems that are involved in ToM but also subserve other functions.

  • Brain regions that are involved in language processing have been proposed to constitute part of the neural substrate of ToM. However, evidence from people with language disorders has indicated that these regions are not part of a core ToM neural system, but are actually co-opted into ToM.

  • Regions of the frontal lobe that subserve executive functioning have also been implicated as ToM substrates. But as in the case of the language system, lesion studies have indicated that the frontal lobes are a co-opted constituent of ToM neural substrates.

  • Other cortical regions of the right hemisphere, particularly those involved in visuo-spatial processing, also contribute to ToM, but also as co-opted systems.

  • Evidence from people with autism and from studies of non-human primates seems to indicate that amygdala circuits are central to ToM and that, in contrast to the other systems that have been analysed, this region forms part of a core ToM system. However, the emergence of ToM does not depend solely on the amygdala, but requires the involvement of the co-opted systems.

  • There are other factors that are crucial for the emergence of ToM. Specifically, early conversational experience seems to be crucial for its development, as it allows the child to gain access to knowledge about the mental states of others at a time when the neural substrates of co-opted systems are maturing.

Abstract

What is the nature of our ability to understand and reason about the beliefs of others — the possession of a 'theory of mind', or ToM? Here, we review findings from imaging and lesion studies indicating that ToM reasoning is supported by a widely distributed neural system. Some functional components of this system, such as language-related regions of the left hemisphere, the frontal lobes and the right temporal–parietal cortex, are not solely dedicated to the computation of mental states. However, the system also includes a core, domain-specific component that is centred on the amygdala circuitry. We provide a framework in which impairments of ToM can be viewed in terms of abnormalities of the core system, the failure of a co-opted system that is necessary for performance on a particular set of tasks, or the absence of an experiential trigger for the emergence of ToM.

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Figure 1: Structural magnetic resonance image in a transverse plane from patient SA.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to S. Laurence, O. Pascalis and L. Surian for their comments on an earlier version of this article. For their valuable input, we also thank members of the Innateness and the Structure of the Mind project, which is sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (UK). The Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation provided generous support that is reflected in the research reviewed here.

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FURTHER INFORMATION

Encyclopedia of Life Sciences

autism

brain imaging: localization of brain functions

brain imaging: observing ongoing neural activity

language

magnetic resonance imaging

MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences

autism

cognitive development

magnetic resonance imaging

positron emission tomography

theory of mind

Glossary

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING

A cluster of high-order capacities, which include selective attention, behavioural planning and response inhibition, and the manipulation of information in problem-solving tasks.

MIRROR NEURONS

A particular class of neurons, originally discovered in the ventral premotor cortex, that code goal-related motor acts such as grasping. Specifically, mirror neurons require action observation for their activation; they become active both when the subject makes a particular action and when it observes another subject making a similar action.

APHASIA

A language impairment that is acquired as a result of stroke or other brain injury.

SPECIFIC LANGUAGE IMPAIRMENT

A term that is often assigned to a developmental language disorder that cannot be explained by any other apparent environmental, perceptual, cognitive or motor cause.

WISCONSIN CARD SORTING TEST

A test that is used to measure behavioural flexibility in which subjects receive cards with different symbols and are asked to sort them by a certain feature (such as their colour). After the rule is learned, the subjects, without warning, are required to 'shift set' and sort them by a different feature (such as the shape of the symbols). People with prefrontal cortex lesions show impaired performance on this task and 'perseverate' — they carry on sorting the cards by a particular feature despite being told that it is incorrect.

DORSAL AND VENTRAL VISUAL STREAMS

Visual information from V1 is processed in two interconnected but partly dissociable visual pathways: a 'ventral' pathway that extends into the temporal lobe and is thought to be primarily involved in visual object recognition, and a 'dorsal' pathway that extends into the parietal lobes and is thought to be more involved in extracting information about 'where' an object is or 'how' to execute a visually guided action towards it.

PRECUNEUS

An area of the inner surface of the cerebral hemisphere, above and in front of the corpus callosum.

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Siegal, M., Varley, R. Neural systems involved in 'theory of mind'. Nat Rev Neurosci 3, 463–471 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn844

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