Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Study identifies brain circuits enabling four-year-olds to “put themselves in other people’s shoes”

Thanks to a crit­i­cal fibre con­nec­tion in the brain (green), four-year-old kids can start to under­stand what oth­er peo­ple think. Cour­tesy of Max Planck Insti­tute.


A remark­able mile­stone occurs in chil­dren around their fourth birth­days: They learn that oth­er peo­ple can have dif­fer­ent thoughts than they do. A recent study is the first to exam­ine the spe­cif­ic brain changes asso­ci­at­ed with this devel­op­men­tal break­through.

The new study specif­i­cal­ly explored the brain changes that occur when a child is able to rec­og­nize that anoth­er per­son believes some­thing that the child knows is false. Once chil­dren gain this abil­i­ty, they can bet­ter pre­dict oth­er people’s behav­ior and mod­i­fy their own—like deny­ing a wrong­do­ing that Mom didn’t see or help­ing out a friend who doesn’t know the rules of kick­ball.

Rec­og­niz­ing the false beliefs of oth­ers is a key step in devel­op­ing what psy­chol­o­gists call a the­o­ry of mind, the under­stand­ing that oth­er peo­ple may have dif­fer­ent thoughts, beliefs, inten­tions, or per­spec­tives.

The­o­ry of Mind con­sti­tutes a key role for com­plex inter­ac­tion between human indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing behav­iors such as coop­er­a­tion, social com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and moral­i­ty,” write Char­lotte Grosse Wies­mann, Jan Schreiber, Tania Singer, Niko­laus Stein­beis, and Angela D. Friederi­ci of Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty and the Max Planck Insti­tute in their Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions paper about the study.

To look for the brain changes that may under­lie a child’s devel­op­ment of a the­o­ry of mind, Grosse Wies­mann and col­leagues scanned the brains of 43 three- and four-year-old chil­dren using a tech­nique called dif­fu­sion-weight­ed mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (dMRI), which can detect the struc­ture and orga­ni­za­tion of white mat­ter with­in the brain.

White mat­ter is made up of nerve fibers that trans­mit mes­sages through­out the brain. It is white because it con­tains a fat­ty sub­stance called myelin that wraps around the nerve fibers, act­ing as an insu­la­tor to speed up neu­ronal mes­sages. Increas­es in myeli­na­tion cor­re­late close­ly with var­i­ous devel­op­men­tal mile­stones, but the growth of white mat­ter path­ways involved in the­o­ry of mind had not been explored in detail pri­or to this study.

In addi­tion to under­go­ing MRI scan­ning, the preschool­ers also per­formed two tasks that test­ed their abil­i­ty to think about the beliefs of oth­ers.

In the first task, the child and a mouse pup­pet were shown an emp­ty box and a lit­tle bag con­tain­ing a piece of can­dy. After the mouse left the room, the exper­i­menter moved the can­dy from the bag to the box. When the mouse reen­tered the room, the child was asked ques­tions about what the mouse would think about the loca­tion of the can­dy. Most three year olds said that the mouse thought the can­dy was in the box, where­as the four year olds were more like­ly to real­ize that the mouse would think the can­dy was still in the bag.

For the oth­er task, the child was shown a choco­late box that con­tained pen­cils. When a mouse pup­pet (who had been out­side) entered the room and encoun­tered the closed box, the child was asked what the mouse would think the box con­tained. Again, most three year olds assumed the mouse knew what they knew. They said that the mouse believed that the box con­tained pen­cils. The four year olds, how­ev­er, were more like­ly to real­ize that the mouse would believe that the choco­late box con­tained choco­lates.

So what was dif­fer­ent in the brains of the four year olds that allowed them to put them­selves in the mouse’s shoes, so to speak?

The researchers dis­cov­ered that mat­u­ra­tion of the white mat­ter fibers in a brain struc­ture called the arcu­ate fas­ci­cle was specif­i­cal­ly linked to the children’s abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize the mouse’s thoughts, but not to oth­er co-devel­op­ing cog­ni­tive skills (which were test­ed via oth­er tasks). These fibers con­nect parts of the tem­po­ral lobe, which is involved in pro­cess­ing oth­er people’s men­tal states in adults, with the medi­al pre­frontal cor­tex, a part of the frontal lobe that process­es abstract and hier­ar­chi­cal think­ing.

Our find­ings show that the emer­gence of [the­o­ry of mind] is relat­ed to the mat­u­ra­tion of core belief pro­cess­ing regions and their con­nec­tion to the pre­frontal cor­tex,” write the authors.

While the researchers hypoth­e­size that con­nect­ing these two areas allows a child to build a men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of oth­ers’ beliefs, future work will need to exam­ine the extent to which this rela­tion­ship is causal. One way to do this could be to scan the same chil­dren mul­ti­ple times to see whether devel­op­ment of the arcu­ate fas­ci­cle in an indi­vid­ual child pre­dates their abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize oth­ers’ false beliefs.

Intrigu­ing­ly, the authors note that non-human pri­mates have very weak arcu­ate fas­ci­cles. Great apes, like younger human tod­dlers, can pass some false-belief tasks, but they seem to lack the abil­i­ty to form more explic­it men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of oth­ers’ false beliefs. This study may shine light on why, at least on a neur­al lev­el.

Indeed, the­o­ry of mind under­lies some of the best ele­ments of human­i­ty. Our abil­i­ty to show com­pas­sion and for­give­ness, to coop­er­ate and work towards com­mon goals, and to under­take moral rea­son­ing about what is right and wrong are all great­ly expand­ed by our capac­i­ty to con­cep­tu­al­ize how oth­er peo­ple think and feel. This study pro­vides new insights into how human brain devel­op­ment sets the stage for these essen­tial social skills and virtues.

Sum­mer Allen, Ph.D., is a sci­ence writer and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence and to Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.


The Study

White mat­ter mat­u­ra­tion is asso­ci­at­ed with the emer­gence of The­o­ry of Mind in ear­ly child­hood (Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions)

  • Abstract: The abil­i­ty to attribute men­tal states to oth­er indi­vid­u­als is cru­cial for human cog­ni­tion. A mile­stone of this abil­i­ty is reached around the age of 4, when chil­dren start under­stand­ing that oth­ers can have false beliefs about the world. The neur­al basis sup­port­ing this crit­i­cal step is cur­rent­ly unknown. Here, we relate this behav­iour­al change to the mat­u­ra­tion of white mat­ter struc­ture in 3- and 4-year-old chil­dren. Tract-based spa­tial sta­tis­tics and prob­a­bilis­tic trac­tog­ra­phy show that the devel­op­men­tal break­through in false belief under­stand­ing is asso­ci­at­ed with age-relat­ed changes in local white mat­ter struc­ture in tem­poropari­etal regions, the pre­cuneus and medi­al pre­frontal cor­tex, and with increased dor­sal white mat­ter con­nec­tiv­i­ty between tem­poropari­etal and infe­ri­or frontal regions. These effects are inde­pen­dent of co-devel­op­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. Our find­ings show that the emer­gence of men­tal state rep­re­sen­ta­tion is relat­ed to the mat­u­ra­tion of core belief pro­cess­ing regions and their con­nec­tion to the pre­frontal cor­tex.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.