March 01, 2010
As far as cognitive scientists are concerned, the children’s game “I spy with my little eye” is anything but child’s play. It is based on the assumption that the person whose turn it is can imagine what the other players are able to see – or not. But do dogs and apes, for instance, also share this ability? At the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, scientists study social cognition factors in different species.
Theory of mind is the scientific term for the art of mind reading. This ability enables people to apprehend others as individuals with their own perceptions, feelings and thoughts and, based on this, to imagine what is going on with them. For researchers, the theory of mind is one of the cornerstones of learning and teaching, and therefore also of the emergence of culture – one need only think here of the role imitation and demonstration play in the passing on of knowledge in the context of language acquisition.
It was long assumed that the theory of mind was a uniquely human ability that developed over the course of evolution. However, scientists working with Michael Tomasello in the Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig observed that chimpanzees also display some of the key features of this ability to perceive the perspectives and intentions of others. In order to find out what apes know about the perceptions of their group members, psychologist Josep Call exploited the extreme food possessiveness displayed by ape house inhabitants in the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center by concealing pieces of fruit in the enclosure. The lower orders actually dared to take the extra portion only when they had observed that the alpha male had either not noticed the food being hidden or did not have the food in his field of vision.