Ape Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind

Humans are capable of thinking about the thoughts of others. As young children we develop the ability to not only model the perceptions, intentions and beliefs of others, but also to recognize others can have thoughts that differ from our own. Developmental psychologists have suggested that it is this ability to think about the thoughts of others or “Theory of Mind” that may be the foundation of our species ability to intentionally cooperate and communicate in ways that other species do not. Without our Theory of Mind we cannot learn language and participate in other forms of cultural learning, we cannot form institutions (i.e., governments, Facebook, etc.) and we cannot teach or care for one another as only our species does (i.e., schools, hospitals, etc.). If this developmental hypothesis is correct then there is something truly unique about the way that our species thinks about the thoughts of others that evolved during human evolution.

We are studying Theory of Mind in bonobos, chimpanzees, lemurs and dogs to test whether they (1) have Theory of Mind capabilities at all and (2) how similar or different their Theory of Mind capabilities are to that of human infants (In collaboration with developmental psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology). In doing so we will understand the evolution of cognitive skills thought to be responsible for the ultra-social species that we are. Understanding the evolution of these cognitive abilities will shed light on the causes of developmental disorders in humans.