How do we understand each other?

The term "Theory of Mind" was coined by Guy Woodruff and David Premack in a paper published in 1978 investigating a chimpanzee's ability to predict a persons behaviour by means of mental state attribution. Basically they were trying to show that their chimp, Sarah, could infer the "intentions" and "motivations" of a man and thus predict his actions.

In the many years since the paper was first published the most extensive research in this area has been seen in developmental psychology, where scientists investigate what human children know about the minds of others. They have tried to determine specifically when children gain the ability to perceive that someone else’s thoughts and ideas, what they know, are different to their own.

Tests such as the "False Belief Task", which is basically just a test to see whether a child will lie about something, that is, can they perceive that they know something that someone else doesn’t, show that it isn’t until around the 3 to 4 year age bracket that children actually develop this Theory of Mind, this ability to understand that their mind is separate from everyone else’s minds. We all take for granted now that what we know is different to what the person next to us knows, we accept it, however because of this separation we endeavour to try and understand other people. We attempt to predict other peoples motivations by utilising this Theory of Mind to try and imagine the reasons behind their actions. If we have a concept of what the mind is, then we can being to attribute different things to the mental state that mind is in. We can venture forth on the long road of trying to understand each other.