In what ways may executive function be necessary for Theory of Mind, and what evidence do we have that it is not always necessary?

Executive Function is the term used to explain higher abilities of  a human or non-human such as managing time and planning that are said to be developed in the Frontal Lobe. For this reason it was once suggested that animals did not have Executive Functions as their Frontal Lobe was not as developed as a humans, however this has since been disputed. Bloom and German (2000) have suggested that Executive Function, along with language, plays a part in our Theory of Mind abilities. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand what another person is feeling, thinking or believing, even when contrary to your own feelings, thoughts or beliefs. The statement that Executive Function is necessary for Theory of Mind has been controversial since the development of animals being able to have Executive Function. New tests have been developed to test Theory of Mind and Executive Function in children, animals and adults, which has questioned the used of Executive Function in Theory of Mind  and shall be discussed in this essay.

First of all, children have been found to have theory of mind by the time that they are 4-5 years old. This has been found through testing false belief abilities as suggested by Wimmer and Perner (1983). Children are shown two boxes and a toy is put in the blue one by Sally, then Sally leaves the room. Anne then puts the toy in the red box. The children are then asked which box Sally will look in for her toy on her return, the correct answer being the blue box. This requires the children to inhibit (an Executive Function) where they know the toy is and remember that Sally doesn’t know that the toy moved to the red box. In 2000 Bloom and German suggested that a false belief task may not be the best test for Theory of Mind due to demands of Executive Function and Language. Through a reverse contingency task it was found that 3 year olds were unable to learn that pointing at one box would get them the other, a test of inhibition, which suggests this is where there difficulty lies in False Belief tasks. However, 3 year olds are not insensitive to beliefs as shown by Ruffman (2007), 3 year olds can look at the correct box that Sally would think the toy is in but still point at the box it IS in highlighting that their inhibition abilities are still developing. Therefore for children Executive Function in terms of inhibition is very important for developing a Theory of Mind. Flavell (1982) suggested that Theory of Mind breaks down into two stages, level 1 and level 2. Level 1 is the perception of other peoples beliefs and level 2 is the use of this perception with Executive Function and Language to see how another being may view it differently. Children need Executive Function as they are being tested for Level 2 Theory of Mind however, if tested younger as by Onishi and Baillergeon (2005) it is shown that at 15 months they have sensitivity to Theory of Mind perception not requiring Executive Function. For the purpose of this essay it shall be explained that Theory of Mind is Level 2 as this is most representative of that used in every day life.

When studies for animals developed it asked more questions about the development of Theory of Mind and therefore the classification of whether or not Executive Function is needed.When researched in animals, specifically chimps, Level 1 Theory of Mind is the highest that is researched. Boysen and Berntson (1995) tested the reverse contingency theory with chimps, similar to that of children, and found that chimps could also not learn that pointing at a box would give it to the other participant. Therefore this test of inhibition shows that they struggle with Executive Function, this would therefore suggest that they cannot have Theory of Mind. However, Hare, Call, Agnetta and Tomasello (2000) have disputed this through testing this in an ecological setting where a chimp is competing with a dominant chimp. The participant and the dominant are shown a piece of food in one location, then only the participant sees it move to another location. In this condition the participant is much more likely to go for the food than in a condition when the dominant chimp does see the food move. Therefore this shows that they have Theory of Mind despite a lack of Executive Functions. When looking at the background behing Theory of Mind it would suggest that this is Level 1 Theory of Mind, therefore Executive Function is not needed for Level 1 processing but is for level 2.

Finally, when testing adults it easier as you can ask them but also harder as they can have many life experiences and biases that can make it seem they have Theory of Mind but in actual fact it is something else. For this reason it is easier to use patients with brain damage specifically of Executive Function or Language for double dissociation to understand which, if any, ability is needed for Theory of Mind. First of all Samson et al (2006) use patient WBA who had a right hemisphere stroke and therefore suffered extensive Executive Function problems. WBA was tested with high and low demand false belief tasks in which he found high demand tasks hard but low demand he performed as a typically developed adult would. Therefore this suggests that Executive Function is needed throughout life to aid Theory of Mind decisions. This is in contrast to language as a study by Apperly (2006) showed that a patient with left hemisphere damage, language and specifically syntax impairment which has been deemed vital for Theory of Mind, could do all tasks, high and low demand, perfectly. Therefore language is not needed throughout life to aid Theory of Mind decisions. As long as language was once in tact then Theory of Mind can be maintained. Therefore in adults it suggests that Executive Function is important for Level 2, high demand, Theory of Mind tasks.

Overall, Theory of Mind is currently being defined and the most recent assumption is that Theory of Mind has two levels, perception and knowledge. In all children, animals and adults they have Theory of Mind without the need of Executive Function as evident by infant studies when children are sensitive to Theory of Mind at 15 months. Chimps do not have the ability to inhibit their own belief however can still show Theory of Mind abilities and adult patients with impaired Executive Function can show level 1 Theory of Mind. However, when Theory of Mind is more advanced at Level 2, Executive Function is needed due to the fact that children and adults without it fail these tasks. Animals have rarely been tested at this level and this therefore needs further exploration.




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