The part of the brain that allows us to think about what other humans feel is developed at the age of 3, according to a new report.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that the ‘social brain’, or the theory of mind, is developed at age 3 thanks to a new technique for obtaining MRI scans of children’s brains.
Previously, scientists thought children develop the ability to think about what others are feeling at the age of four.
But this was because they did not know how to use MRI technology to study children younger than five years old.
Now, a team of researchers has developed a way to scan the brains of younger children, and they concluded that 3-year-olds’ ‘social brains’ work, too.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have learned that children as young as three years old have the theory of mind capability that allows them to consider what other humans are feeling, such as happiness or anger (file photo)
Humans employ the theory of mind each time they draw conclusions about what another human is thinking.
This could come from a thought about what another person desires, what they are feeling or what they believe.
Previous behavioral research suggested children start succeeding at a key element of theory of mind at about age four.
But MIT researchers have now discovered the brain network responsible for the theory of mind capability can be detected in children who are three years old.
‘Until now, neuroscientists had assumed that theory of mind studies involving fMRI brain scans could only be done with children at least five years of age because the children need to be able to lie still in a scanner for about 20 minutes, listen to a series of stories and answer questions about them,’ the new report explained.
Researcher Hilary Richardson wanted to analyze children not yet five years old in order to learn what the brain network responsible for the theory of mind capability looks like in younger children.
To achieve this, Richardson and researcher Professor Rebecca Saxe developed a new experimental protocol.
A team of researchers has developed a way to scan the brains of younger children, and they concluded that 3-year-olds’ ‘social brains’ work, too. Stock image
The new protocol called for scanning children who were watching a short movie including basic social interactions two characters engage in.
The researchers chose an animated film called ‘Partly Cloudy’ for the study.
The report said: ‘”Partly Cloudy” lends itself well to the experiment. It features Gus, a cloud who produces baby animals, and Peck, a stork whose job is to deliver the babies.
‘Gus and Peck have some tense moments in their friendship because Gus produces baby alligators and porcupines, which are difficult to deliver, while other clouds create kittens and puppies. Peck is attacked by some of the fierce baby animals, and he isn’t sure if he wants to keep working for Gus.’
Richardson explained why the movie was a good pick, saying: ‘It has events that make you think about the characters’ mental states and events that make you think about their bodily states.’
The research for the new report took about four years to complete, and the MIT team gathered data on 122 children ages three to 12.
The researchers scanned each child’s entire brain and focused on two networks: the network responsible for the theory of mind capability and a second one called the pain matrix.
The pain matrix becomes active when a human considers another human’s physical state.
In addition to the children, the researchers scanned the brains of 33 adults for the study.
The adults, too, watched ‘Partly Cloudy’ while scanned.
The study said: ‘Scans of children revealed that even in three-year-olds the theory of mind and pain networks responded preferentially to the same events that the adult brains did.’
Richardson emphasized the importance of the study, explaining that it means the theory of mind network studied in adult brains is already running in the minds of three-year-old children.
The responses the three-year-olds showed were not as strong as those of the adults, but those of older children were stronger.
The study said: ‘The findings offer support for an existing hypothesis that says children develop theory of mind even before they can pass explicit false-belief tests, and that it continues to develop as they get older.
‘Theory of mind encompasses many abilities, including more difficult skills such as understanding irony and assigning blame, which tend to develop later.’
A rivaling hypothesis states that children see somewhat sudden theory of mind development at about age four of five when they can pass the false-belief test.
The brain network responsible for the theory of mind capability was believed to develop at age four, but a new study suggests that younger children have the developed network. The researchers responsible for the new study used MRI technology to come to this conclusion (file photo)
But, the study said, ‘the MIT data, which do not show any dramatic changes in brain activity when children begin to succeed at the false-belief test, do not support that theory’.
Professor Saxe said: ‘Scientists have focused really intensely on the changes in children’s theory of mind that happen around age four, when children get a better understanding of how people can have wrong or biased or misinformed beliefs.
‘But really important changes in how we think about other minds happen long before, and long after, this famous landmark.
‘Even two-year-olds try to figure out why different people like different things – this must be why they get so interested in talking about everybody’s favorite colors – and even nine-year-olds are still learning about irony and negligence. Theory of mind seems to undergo a very long continuous developmental process, both in kids’ behaviors and in their brains.’
The scientists hope to continue their research by scanning autistic children’s brains to determine if there are differences in their theory of mind network development.