Theory of Mind, a conceptual error in neuropsychology?

Manuel Matías Ambiado-Lillo


Contemporary neuropsychology recognizes the theory of mind as the capacity that children develop, between the ages of 4 and 5, to interpret, predict and explain their own behavior and that of others in terms of their underlying mental states, linking its study to various types of disorders with special emphasis on autism spectrum disorders. The objective of the article focuses on the reflection on what a theory that seeks to investigate the mind should consider, addressing the concepts of inferences and representations, contrasting its content with folk psychology. The relevance of directing the line of study is analyzed considering a conceptual change for a more appropriate one that generates fewer theoretical gaps at the time of establishing its epistemic support, for this purpose, social cognition is presented as a possible candidate to replace the highly controversial theory of the mind. From this point of view, it is important to emphasize the importance of concepts when informing the results of research, since they can stigmatize and / or caricature the groups of people with whom they work, groups that particularly they tend to be differentiated by the social group given the baseline characteristics by which they are chosen to be part of the research.


Key words: theory of mind, neuropsychology, cognitive science, autism spectrum disorder, social cognition.



As in most reflective processes, the first question that should be posed is the question itself in general terms: what is the theory of mind (TM)? Numerous authors in the field of neuropsychology - following Premack and Woodruf(1) recognize it as “the ability that children develop, between 4 and 5 years old, to interpret, predict and explain their own behavior and those of others in terms of their underlying mental states”, or in more synthetic, and otherwise daring, words, “<<read>> the mind of the other”(2). These quotations show that more than a theory of mind, it is a practical application of a learned social skill, which seeks a localizationist sustenance(3) comparable to neurophysioanatomical descriptions for the study of language in aphasic pictures.(4)


Is the Theory of Mind a theory of mind?

But this TM does not consider in its background explanation extremely relevant factors in mental performance, namely; emotions, representations and inferences, therefore, would be conditioned by their inability to explain in a satisfactory and scientific way the conception of mind rooted in a biological system. Possibly the reader tends to refute that the TM does account for the inferences that people can make, as in the already classic proof of false beliefs of Sally and Anne proposed by Baron-Cohen(5), but, what and how are these inferences generated? again remains in the plane of execution without a foundation that supports this action.


As for the information regarding the representations the scenario is even more discouraging, the TM only mentions that people have representations, however, it does not describe what those representations are specifically, or how they could be studied. At this point, the TM collapses by not even establishing a hint of intention in its explanation, considering that, although representations pose a great challenge when thinking about how to configure the abstraction of reality, since the nineties ideas have been proposed for its adequate approach, either from the semantic theory of two factors(6) or from the modular syntactic theory proposed by Fodor(7). Moreover, with the progress of technology and the unification of the classical sciences in their form of cognitive neuroscience, new proposals are found to these questions, specifically from the neuroscience of language, a discipline in which the entire neuroanatomical framework (of which there is currently knowledge) is exposed and explained, in which the linguistic functions evidentible thanks to advances in neuroimaging and tractography are based (8). To exemplify this idea, and as an emerging feature of the CNS, it can be established that mental representations arise from the activation of psychones (neural systems grouped with a shared purpose) that allow conceptualization(9), in the same way it happens for all linguistic skills.


By understanding these variations, the repercussions that occur in neuropsychology are evident. With a specific basal substrate it becomes easier to understand how a nervous system that is affected by external factors, whether environmental or social, or internal endocrine factors, reasoning or spontaneous neural activity affect the performance of human beings. The understanding of these events in terms of emerging characteristics of a biosystem, could be analyzed from the change in neural activities by afferent stimuli that trigger information processing in nuclei or specialized cortical areas, which in turn generate efferent responses through motor output systems(10) originating human behaviors that are the object of study of neuropsychology. However, and despite the above foundation, could a mental representation such as this emergency be assumed?, if it is assumed as true there would be no TM, since the foundation is oriented to the plane of reductionism, therefore, more than mentalization the TM would address physical issues. On the other hand, if it is dismissed, it remains to be established that it is a representation, and in this way, a theory that intends to address them without making a detailed description, how could it explain them?

Theory of mind or common-sense psychology?

It is evident that TM has no answers to these questions, yet it postulates that people interact by predicting the actions of their interlocutors based on underlying mentalizations. Classical proposals for understanding TM include (a) modular theory, which proposes that there is a specific module in the brain that would be responsible for this ability to read the mind; the (b) theory of theories, establishing an evolutionary construct in human development, placing as a critical age 4 years, age at which TM would be demonstrable by evaluations of false beliefs; and (c) simulation theory, which states that people simulate mental states that are then attributed to their



Because of the way TM is presented after analysis, it would be appropriate to question whether more than a theory of mind, perhaps it would be more appropriate to recognize it as a postulate framed within the classic psychology of common sense, considering that -quoting Rabossi at length-


“The vocabulary of common-sense psychology refers to mental states and processes and assumes, consequently, that such states and processes exist. The attribution of these states and processes makes it possible to interpret, explain and predict the actions of others. In such a case, some of the terms used play the role of theoretical terms, and the explanations and predictions assume the existence of regularities and laws”.(12)


A postulate that is masked in an explanation of personal and subpersonal processes(13), producing a kind of scientism that does not come to be founded in detail.


It is worth saying that, at present, this vision in the world of cognitive sciences is strongly questioned, because its entire proposal has no way of being tested under the classical scientific paradigm, even mentioning some scholars of the mind, that these postulates are not a real contribution since they do not solve problems in the area, therefore it should not exist.(14)

Practical implications

Since the beginning of conceptualization, TM in neuropsychology has been studied linked to various types of disorders(15-17), with special emphasis on autism spectrum disorders (ASD(18-24). And one of the conclusions that has been reached in most cases, as you might expect, is that people with these neuropsychological disorders have problems with TM. But the difficulties that arise are rather inferential and representational, and these mental skills are those that are intended to correlate with linguistic, contextual and/or emotional performances, without much success otherwise. But what does these results answer or report regarding the mind itself?, What about people who fail in inference tasks, have less mind than other people? In this line, it could be concluded that people who fail to infer and represent, as well as people who do not yet reach 3 or 4 years of age, do not have a mind. Most likely, this is not a conclusion that the same scientists who use the term TM are willing to accept. In this sense, it would be more pertinent to direct the line of study considering a conceptual change, which was more appropriate and generated fewer theoretical gaps at the time of establishing its epistemic support, for this purpose, social cognition(25) is presented as a possible candidate to replace the controversial TM.


In this way, the new conceptualization would respond much better to practical questions such as, failures that a person could present when presupposing a certain way of acting or deciding with respect to another person, who has been raised in a completely different culture to which he belongs; difficulty inferring emotional states; understand metaphorical statements.


In this sense, the reflections proposed by Rodríguez(26) are worthwhile, who postulates that what people believe, more than an internal state, is given in function of their physical and social context. Even the very figure of being emerges from the experiences that people represent mediated by autobiographical stories that will serve to present themselves socially to others and to themselves.

Final comments

As is evident after this brief exposition, the application of concepts without foundations that support them, and that also pretend to respond to this or that phenomenon without a background reflection entails a couple of consequences that are far from being benign. A first conclusion could be directed to the implantation and permanence of concepts in the neuropsychological scientific collective and its related areas, which without a doubt, in the long run can produce biases or limitations in the perspectives of how these phenomena are addressed, a clear example, and keeping all the proportions, is the Cartesian dualism that implants the mind-body “dilemma” discussed to this day.


Taking this idea, the whole study that derives from the TM proposal, given the characteristic approach of doing science today, can mean a misinterpretation and terminological application when considering the conclusions of contemporary studies, which aim to inform to what extent a certain skill or condition correlates with the TM of that person, which can mean in many cases spurious correlations by not individualizing and operationalizing each of the constituents of this theory.


From this point of view, it is important to emphasize the importance of concepts when reporting the results of research, because they can stigmatize and / or caricature the groups of people with whom we work, groups that particularly tend to be differentiated by the social collective given the basal characteristics by which they are chosen to be part of the research.


When considering all the background presented, a change in conceptualization is considered relevant and feasible. In this sense, at present there is the concept of social cognition, which in the opinion of the author is positioned as ideal given the nature of the human being as a social being par excellence, also, a universe of possibilities is opened to the study considering that the mind, at some point, may stop being analyzed as a pre-established construct, internal and individual.




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(2023). Theory of Mind, a conceptual error in neuropsychology?.Journal of Neuroeuropsychiatry, 57(4).
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2023. « Theory of Mind, a conceptual error in neuropsychology?» Journal of Neuroeuropsychiatry, 57(4). 121
(2023). « Theory of Mind, a conceptual error in neuropsychology? ». Journal of Neuroeuropsychiatry, 57(4). Available in: 121 ( Accessed: 6diciembre2023 )
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