The Origins of Mind-Reading: Insights from Non-Human Primates

Laurie Santos

(Yale University)

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Date: October 9, 2019


How do we come to represent the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of other people? Over the past decade, researchers have made great strides in developing non-verbal methods for studying both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of human mental state representations. This recent work has come to suggest an important divide between the representations that human infants use to think about other minds and those used by nonhuman primates: while human infants show evidence of representing others’ beliefs, to date nonhuman primates have not. However, other species do show a sophisticated ability to track others’ current and past perceptions. In my talk, I’ll explore what this pattern means for the origins of theory of mind representation more generally. I’ll argue that nonhuman primates may possess a phylogenetically-old system for tracking other individuals’ informational relations between agents and true (but not false) information. I’ll then discuss how this view accounts both for nonhuman primates’ performance in a range of theory of mind tasks as well as what it means for developmental accounts of infants’ early theory of mind representations.

Created: Wednesday, October 9th, 2019