MIT: Brains of young children able to interpret mental states of others

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A recent MIT study has found that children as young as 3 years old may be capable of thinking about and potentially understanding the mental states of other people, according to an MIT news release

According to the release, the study is the first of its kind to use fMRI technology to scan young children's brains while they perform a task requiring "theory of mind," or making inferences about someone's else's thoughts.  

“The brain regions involved in theory-of-mind reasoning are behaving like a cohesive network, with similar responses to the movie, by age 3, which is before kids tend to pass explicit false-belief tasks,” said lead author Hilary Richardson, an MIT graduate student.  

Researchers spent four years gathering data from 122 children, ages 3 to 12, and 33 adults. The participants were watched a short animated movie while inside the MRI scanner. Specifically, researchers focused on analyzing two distinct networks in participants' brains: the theory-of-mind network and the pain matrix, which activates when thinking about a person's physical state. They found that both networks "responded preferentially" to the same events in the movie as the brains of the adults. 

“Scientists have focused really intensely on the changes in children’s theory of mind that happen around age 4, when children get a better understanding of how people can have wrong or biased or misinformed beliefs,” said senior author Rebecca Saxe, PhD, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “But really important changes in how we think about other minds happen long before, and long after, this famous landmark. Theory of mind seems to undergo a very long continuous developmental process, both in kids’ behaviors and in their brains.”

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