Theory of Mind

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Theory of Mind: Development of Understanding Intentions, Desires, and Beliefs Erica Lu
University of California, Davis
HDE 101/PSC 141 Fall 2009

Although humans are incredibly different in almost every aspect and ability, there are a few things that hold true to the majority: learning about intention, desire, and belief and developing an understanding of mental concepts (Polen & Shebloski, 2009). This understanding is known as the Theory of Mind. Children, despite biological or environmental circumstances, develop this knowledge. Having had personal experience caring for a wide range of children, those with varying mental disabilities and currently one who has been neglected and abused and moved around several foster homes, it has been noted that despite these different circumstances, all of these children have developed an understanding of mental concepts through their comprehension of their own intentions, desires, beliefs and eventually those of others. Theory of Mind envelops the concepts of what makes us human, and what separates us from objects. It is the beginning and foundation of a child’s thinking and cognitive development. It is a significant topic of interest because of its universality and direct relation to the acquisition of social development.

Before examining children’s acquisition of the Theory of Mind, one must know how it may be defined; Theory of Mind basically draws a relationship between the internal and external world. It is the comprehension that one’s mind represents the world and its mental states such as intentions, desires and beliefs and that these are internal and are different and can be represented in the external, world, through actions (Polen & Shebloski, 2009). Theory of Mind is divided into three understandings, intentions, desires, and beliefs. Firstly, intentions are very important because they distinguish people from objects- people have aspirations, goals, and motives while objects do not. Also, for children to understand morality and responsibility they must first grasp the ideas of intention. Secondly, desire is a mental state that is brought about by emotions. Desires combined with perceptions are the first things that children generally talk about. For example, one may notice that children’s first phrases usually revolve around wanting something whether it be “I want ____” or as simple as “Ball,” meaning they desire to have a ball. This occurs approximately around two years of age, and they begin to discover that other people’s desires may not match their own (Polen & Shebloski, 2009). Lastly, children need to understand beliefs and how theirs, along with other’s, may differ from reality; this understanding may be measure using false belief tasks. Importance lies in knowing at around what ages these three understandings are acquired, how they are learned, and what affect they may have in other areas of a child’s development.

Intentions may be perceived as early as in Piaget’s Sensorimotor period from between birth to two years of age, more specifically, at just around one to four months of age. At the beginning of this stage, the majority of an infant’s abilities are reflexes- they wave and grab as instinctual responses to their environment. However, they soon learn that certain actions yield certain responses (Alibali & Siegler, 2005). Thus, they begin to repeat these primary actions to replicate the response, demonstrating intention. Although they are not at all well developed enough to aid children in understanding morality and responsibility. Even at this stage, it helps differentiate objects from people, in that people have goals and motives(Polen & Shebloski, 2009).

Other evidence that supports acquisition of intention early on in development is found in a study conducted by Vincent M. Reid, Stephanie Hoehl, Maren Grigutsch, Anna Groendahl, Eugenio Parise, and Tricia Striano (2009) on neural correlates of children...
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