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Two systems for thinking about others’ thoughts in the developing brain

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Grosse Wiesmann,  Charlotte
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark;

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Friederici,  Angela D.
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Grosse Wiesmann, C., Friederici, A. D., Singer, T., & Steinbeis, N. (2020). Two systems for thinking about others’ thoughts in the developing brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(12), 6928-6935. doi:10.1073/pnas.1916725117.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0006-108D-9
Abstract
Human social interaction crucially relies on the ability to infer what other people think. Referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM), this ability has long been argued to emerge around 4 y of age when children start passing traditional verbal ToM tasks. This developmental dogma has recently been questioned by nonverbal ToM tasks passed by infants younger than 2 y of age. How do young children solve these tests, and what is their relation to the later-developing verbal ToM reasoning? Are there two different systems for nonverbal and verbal ToM, and when is the developmental onset of mature adult ToM? To address these questions, we related markers of cortical brain structure (i.e., cortical thickness and surface area) of 3- and 4-y-old children to their performance in novel nonverbal and traditional verbal TM tasks. We showed that verbal ToM reasoning was supported by cortical surface area and thickness of the precuneus and temporoparietal junction, classically involved in ToM in adults. Nonverbal ToM reasoning, in contrast, was supported by the cortical structure of a distinct and independent neural network including the supramarginal gyrus also involved in emotional and visual perspective taking, action observation, and social attention or encoding biases. This neural dissociation suggests two systems for reasoning about others’ minds—mature verbal ToM that emerges around 4 y of age, whereas nonverbal ToM tasks rely on different earlier-developing possibly social-cognitive processes.