Last week my wife and I had a fallout (as most healthy couples do – I think). I went and lay on our bed to be alone for a while. From down the passage I heard hurried footsteps and then the door opened (it’s strange, my daughter never walks from one room to the other, she always runs; so cute). She climbed on the bed and asked me what was wrong. I explained to her that I was sad because mommy and daddy had had an argument. She climbed onto me and said: “Don’t be sad daddy; I'm your best friend, your best friend in the whole world.” I melted like a celebrity’s foundation during a photo shoot. She has since gone on to tell my wife and I how much she loves us, along with giving us loads of kisses every now and again - and the "best friend" card often comes out when I get upset with her when she doesn't listen; all this before the age of three. But what exactly has changed from two weeks ago when none of this was even in sight?
A simple way to explain this is through “theory of mind”. This is where children develop the capacity for understanding another person's mental state and/or emotions. What my daughter is now able to do is reflect on the feelings of others and almost put herself in that person’s position. This usually takes place between the ages of three and four for neurotypical children (those whose mental development is comparatively normal). Interestingly, this is a key feature in the test for Autism; whilst Autistic individuals do not possess theory of mind, those with Down’s Syndrome do. This ability to understand those around us is what makes us as human beings relatively predictable.
So what made my daughter ask me what was wrong? What formed the basis of her belief that I was, in fact, upset? What was it about lying on the bed, door closed, by myself which led her to believe that her father was feeling sad? I never announced the fact that I was feeling miserable yet she was able to pick up on this with relative ease; even at the age of two ("women’s intuition, perhaps" I hear you mutter to yourself). The answer to these questions probably lies in the evolutionary benefits which theory of mind bestows.
Psychologist Baron-Cohen and his team of researchers conducted a study to see how children with Autism differ from other children with regards to theory of mind. The Autistic children had an average age of 11, whilst the control group (those whom they were measured up against) had an average age of 4. The researchers created the following scenario:
|Original artwork by Axel Scheffler|
Two rag dolls, Sally and Anne, each sit in front of a container. Sally puts a ball in her container (a basket) and then “leaves the room”. Anne removes the ball from Sally’s basket and places it in her own. Sally returns. As the scenario plays out, the children watch and observe. The children are then asked “where will Sally look for the ball?” People who have theory of mind will say that Sally will look in her basket, whereas those lacking theory of mind (very young children and those with Autism) will say that Sally will look in Anne’s basket. The incorrect answer is given because these children cannot perceive that another person will think differently to them; they know that the ball is in Annie’s box as they have witnessed the fact that it was moved. This shows rather clearly that young children are unable to "put themselves in the shoes of others".
My daughter has literally just hopped out of bed to "cheer me up" she says. According to her "Love makes you better Daddy". Theory of mind in action!