As a species, human beings are distinguished by an advanced social intelligence. We perceive in ourselves and in others an inner life of goals, fears, hopes, beliefs, imaginings, and longings. By sharing our inner lives, we cooperate, compete, and communicate in ways that are impossible for any other species and that remain a distant dream for even the most advanced computer systems. Although central to human nature, the ability to share our inner lives only began to be studied by cognitive psychologists in the 1980's and by neuroscientists in the 1990's. Many advances have been made since then in understanding the cognitive and brain bases of what is called our "theory of mind" ability. Theory-of-mind abilities can be experimentally demonstrated in typically developing 4-year-old children, while older and otherwise capable children and adolescents with autism are unable to pass the same tasks. The severe social and communicative impairments in autism may stem from a failure of theory of mind to develop in the brain. Although typically developing children do not generally demonstrate theory-of-mind abilities using traditional tasks until age four (with younger children failing such tasks), recent evidence demonstrates that infants show some aspects of this ability when measured with nonverbal tasks. These seemingly discrepant findings suggest that typically developing babies may have an unconscious and intuitive version of theory-of-mind abilities previously associated only with four-year-olds. If so, typical social development may depend upon the unfolding of a natural theory-of-mind 'instinct' that is expressed first at an intuitive, unconscious, and non-verbal level in the brain. Failure of developing brain systems to express this early 'instinct' may characterize autistic spectrum disorders. This project investigates these ideas by using a variety of experimental methods some of which probe spontaneous, intuitive (or "implicit") responses to social scenarios such as eye-gaze and looking behaviors, as well as traditional, more deliberative (or "explicit") measures such as answers to verbal questions about similar scenarios. Neurologically typical children will be studied in several age groups, from infants to older preschoolers, as well as children with autism. Through a multi-population, multi-method approach the project will reveal how multiple theory-of-mind systems interact in developing brain systems and how unconscious cognition gradually comes to connect with conscious verbal knowledge.
The project integrates research with teaching and service to the broader community. Post-doctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students, including minorities and individuals from developing nations, are fully involved each year. Findings are disseminated not only through scholarly publications and meetings, but also through public lectures and through old and new media, including the internet. The project will help uncover the deep roots of human sociality and, by revealing how it develops, will enrich understanding of the foundations of human culture, the capacity for education and law, the social transmission of knowledge, children's and adults' intuitive social sense, and the nature of autistic spectrum disorders.