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7-Month-Old Babies Can Read Minds, Surprising New Study Says

Empathy, theory of mind, and children with autism

Little mind readers?

It’s not until age four that a kid can see things from another person’s point of view — an advanced skill called “theory of mind.”

Not much empathy or consideration for the thoughts or feelings of others, and no ability to jump inside the mind of someone else to see the world from their perspective (sound familiar?)

Or so goes the standard psychological view. But a new, provocative finding in the journal Science is challenging this notion, suggesting that babies as young as seven months may be capable of “reading” another person’s mind.

A diaper-clad, babbling baby with a capacity for empathy – can you imagine?

Here’s what the scientists found. And why a box of crayons might have led us astray:

The scientists used “looking time” — a standard way to gauge a baby’s thinking, because babies tend to look longer at something that is unexpected.

They showed seven-month-old babies a video in which a ball rolls behind a rectangle and either stops or keeps going on the other side. A cartoon figure in the video watched the ball the first time, and then walked off the screen. The second time, the baby alone watched it roll, then the cartoon character came back on screen to see the final result of where the ball ended up (off screen or behind the rectangle when it was lifted).

The babies looked longer when the result was unexpected to the cartoon character (the result that would be unexpected had you only seen the first roll), suggesting that the babies could appreciate what would surprise the character.

In the the older, more classic experiment, a child (child A) is shown a box of crayons, but inside there are M&Ms. Next, the box is closed and child B enters. The first child is asked what child B will think is in the crayon box.

Three-year-olds usually say “M&Ms.” Four-year-olds will say “crayons.”

It’s always been taken to mean that the three-year-old sees the world from only his own view, whereas a four-year-old knows child B will expect crayons since he wasn’t privy to the earlier reveal.

But now, things aren’t quite so clear. If a seven-month-old is already working on putting herself in another’s shoes, that means this very advanced skill — the underpinnings of empathy, social awareness, and relationships — has earlier roots than we ever imagined.

One question to ponder here is whether this early social skill could be used to screen for autism at such a young age, since children on the autism spectrum tend to struggle with this “ability to see the other’s mind.”

Image: flickr

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