Four-Year-Old Children and Their Ability to Understand Others

By Rideeta Raquib ’19

 

Figure 1. Four-year-old children develop the ability to understand others.

Figure 1. Four-year-old children develop the ability to understand others.

One of the key components of human cognition is understanding mental states of others and recognize that people around the world may have differing perspectives. This concept, referred to as the theory of mind, plays an important role in human communication and cooperation. Children initially pass false belief tests at the age of three or four years old. These tests ask the subjects how a person with a false belief regarding a particular topic or location will act. Implicit false beliefs are a less developed form of understanding others, which involves gazing and starts as early as 2 years old, while explicit false beliefs include verbal and executive expression. Professor Charlotte Grosse Wiesmann and a group of researchers from Germany examined the neural and physiological mechanisms that constitute for this development in three to four year olds.

Previous imaging studies, involving six to 12 year-olds, employed electroencephalography (EEG) and found an association with the Temporoparietal junction and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex of the brain to false belief understanding. The researchers hypothesized that it was related to the white matter pathways that connected regions involved in false belief understanding in adults. These regions include the cingulum, which is a curved bundle of nerve fibers connecting the prefrontal cortex (PC) and mid-prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the temporoparietal-prefrontal connections, and corpus callosum. Furthermore, a method called diffusion-weighted MRI (dMRI), which measures the diffusion of water molecules in the brain, investigated white matter in the brain. A behavioral analysis asked children, between the ages of three and four years old, about the actions of a puppet that had a false belief about a particular location of desired object. It was observed via a Wilcoxon statistical analysis that three-year-old children performed significantly below chance, while four year olds had a marginally higher performance compared to chance. In statistical studies, “chance” refers to random results, which indicates that the aspect being tested is not significant and could happen to due to multiple factors. The dorsal connectivity from the middle temporal gyrus to anterior portions of the inferior temporal gyrus had a relationship with false belief understanding.

Overall, this study provides an insight on the developmental implications in the brain, as well as behavioral modifications in relation to false belief understanding in children. In the future, scientists can follow-up on the specific brain regions responsible for mastering implicit false beliefs and include younger subjects to analyze the development more accurately. Longitudinal studies will aid in verifying the causal effects of brain development on cognition. Researchers will understand when the implicit to explicit transition occurs and have a larger scope on the human mind and beliefs in relation to other organisms.

 

References:

  1. C. G. Wiesmann, et al., White matter maturation is associated with the emergence of Theory of Mind in early childhood. Nature Communications 8, (2017). doi: 10.1038/ncomms14692
  2. Image retrieved from: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/97/95/3d/97953de6f467b802007e149b1fedc29b.jpg
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