Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states — thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings –to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own. Deficits in ToM may occur in people with Asperger’s syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, sociopathy and other mental disorders.
Theory of mind is called a “theory” in that the mind is not directly observable. We never know for sure what is going on in the minds of other people — we can only make assumptions based on experiences with our own beliefs, emotions and perceptions.
Empathy is a similar concept to theory of mind but slightly different in that it refers to the ability to infer another’s emotional state, or to “feel” what another must be feeling. Theory of mind, on the other hand, is the ability to understand and attribute a particular mental state to a certain behavior without necessarily feeling it or aligning oneself to that mental state.
Mind-blindness is essentially the opposite of theory of mind. It is a cognitive disorder characterized by an inability to attribute mental states to oneself or another person. Mind-blindness is a trait that appears in many people with Asperger’s syndrome, autism and schizophrenia and others who show deficits in social insight. In these cases, the affected person has a very hard time understanding or predicting the mental states of other people.
Example: Dr. Parker, a psychiatrist who specializes in the autism spectrum, tests children for ToM skills and works with them to increase their abilities in this area.