“Theory of Mind” is the ability to reason about the minds of others- to consider their wants, beliefs, feelings, and perspectives. In human adults, reasoning about the minds of recruits a specific set of brain regions. In this study, we used fMRI to characterize the development of this set of brain regions. By using a short animated movie, we were able to collect data from children as young as three years old.
By age three, these brain regions show signatures of being “specialized” for processing information about the minds of others: the responses of these brain regions were highly correlated with one another, and anti-correlated (negatively correlated) with a separate set of brain regions.
We also found evidence for gradual, continuous functional specialization through childhood, which related to overall performance on a social reasoning task. Finally, passing a particular “theory of mind” task – known as the “false-belief” task – doesn’t not correspond to discontinuities in development of these brain regions. By contrast, development appears to begin before and continue after children pass explicit false belief tasks.
Reference: Development of the social brain from age three to twelve years; Nature Communications (2018).