Theory of Mind: How brains think about thoughts


May 2008
Theory of Mind: How brains think about thoughts

Rebecca Saxe and Liane Young

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT

At the heart of comedy and tragedy, there is often a false belief. Titania doesn’t
know she’s in love with a donkey. Romeo thinks Juliet is dead. Human audiences are
brought to laughter and tears. Imagine, though, an audience that doesn’t have a concept
of belief, that cannot think about other people’s thoughts at all. These plots would make
no sense. In fact, the whole notion of theatre, of watching actors depict a fictional story,
could never get off the ground.

Our minds and brains have, among their most astonishing capacities, the ability to
see behind people’s physical actions to their internal causes, thoughts and intentions.
That is, we have a Theory of Mind (ToM) for understanding and interpreting the
external actions of others. When the audience thinks “Romeo doesn’t know that Juliet
wants her parents to think that she is dead”, that thought consists of a pattern of firing
across a group of neurons somewhere in each person’s brain. This fact is both obvious
(what is the alternative?) and mind-boggling. How are those neurons doing it?
To get the answers, we need to be able to study the human brain in action. Unlike
the traditional neuroscience topics covered in this volume - perception, motor control,
attention, memory, and emotion - uniquely human cognitive capacities, like language
and social cognition, cannot be studied in the brains of non-human animals. The
invention of functional neuroimaging has therefore opened up many topics that,
historically, belonged only to social sciences: how we think about people, how we think
about thoughts, how we make moral judgments, and more.

Although the neuroscience of ToM is only around a decade old, we will review
evidence that begins to address some fundamental questions. What are the neural
substrates of ToM? Are there distinct brain regions selectively recruited for ToM (as
there are regions for vision, audition, motor control, etc.)? If so, what are (and aren’t)
these brain regions doing? Are there distinct cognitive components of ToM? Answers
to these questions provide the foundation for a cognitive neuroscience of Theory of

Where in the brain do people think about thoughts?

Human adults can think about other people as having an infinite array of beliefs and
desires, ranging from trivial to sublime, from familiar to exotic, from simple to
remarkably complex.

For example, consider the following story: Sally and Anne go to the same high
school. Sally doesn’t suspect that Anne knows that Sally’s boyfriend Tom believes that
the tooth fairy stole the quarterback’s lucky tooth before the big game, jinxing the team.
Anne also knows that Tom will propose to Sally at graduation, so Anne realises that
only she can stop their engagement.

Even though this story is highly complex, the people are unfamiliar to you, and you
likely have never considered the possibility of the tooth fairy’s interference in a football
game, you can nevertheless make sense of this story, and predict and explain the
characters’ actions and emotions. How do you do it? What is happening in your brain
while you read the story?

May 2011
Marble, N.C.
I will go with memory. We are bombarded with language pictures experiences and stuff. It has to go somewhere. When we need it ,it's always there. What's the difference between new thought and old related thought? Could there be a connection? Take neuroscience, science fiction etc. The before and after words relate in some way. All wording relates in some way. Take questions and answers. Both relate in one way or another. thoughts please. pl