Cognitive Philosophy 101: Can We Read Minds?


Cognitive Philosophy 101 is a series of articles on Cognitive Psychology and Philosophy of Mind that aims to provide a quick and accessible overview of some of the topics currently being debated in both fields. It focuses particularly on areas in which the two fields intersect and provides discussions of some of the theories currently being put forward by some of the most important practitioners of both areas of analysis.

The series is divided into the following articles:

  1. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Can We Read Minds?

  2. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Spectatorialist Mind Reading

  3. Cognitive Philosophy 101: How Irrational is Rationality?

  4. Cognitive Philosophy 101: Emotions and Decision-Making

  5. Cognitive Philosophy 101: A Cognitively Effective Approach to Explaining Global Warming

Can We Read Minds?

"Mind Reading" is a popular theme in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. It more than likely brings to mind an image of Marvel Comic's Professor X actively entering people’s minds and reading their thoughts. This is not, however, how cognitive psychologists and philosophers use the term.

Two Minds in Communication

The concept of mind reading was used by Premack and Woodruff in their paper “Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?”(1978). Within the limits of cognitive psychology and philosophy, "mind reading" means the ability to ascribe mental states to oneself and to others. Such mental states might look something like "I am sad" or "Anna is angry/upset", and they are necessary to explain everyday exchanges - without them, many interactions would be impossible. For example, we often observe that someone is in a bad mood and therefore change our behavior towards that person. Premack and Woodruff examined whether a chimpanzee, Sarah, was capable of ascribing mental states to an actor in a videotape. The actors were shown struggling with a variety of problems, and the chimpanzee was given photos that contained a variety of solutions to the problem, only one of which was correct. Premack and Woodruff found that the chimpanzee often selected the photo depicting the correct solution, thereby demonstrating an awareness of the actor's desires and beliefs. What this indicated was that the chimpanzee was therefore capable of ascribing mental states to another.

Premack and Woodruff postulate an approach that might be called the Child-Scientist Theory. The idea is that the ability to mind read is equivalent to having a Theory of the Mind, involving a set of propositional inferences whose objects are not directly observable and that can be used to make predictions. What this means is that we draw on propositions that help us detect unobservable objects in others (such as anger, happiness, or belief ) and we then use these propositions to make inferences. The process would look something like this: If someone’s eyes are glossy, their lips are pouting, and their eyebrows are scrunched together, it would be reasonable to postulate the presence of a non-observable (or theoretical) entity, which in this case would be sadness. From this, the observer can postulate that the observed is likely to burst into tears, flee the scene, or at least want the upsetting topic of conversation to be dropped.

Premack and Woodruff argue that this Theory of Mind is created in the child in the same way as most other theories are created - by trial and error. This process can be observed in the evolution of many scientific theories. For example, the Heliocentric Theory of the Planets came about as a result of a dynamic process that involved adapting the theory to incorporate new evidence and rejecting older ideas that no longer fit with observations, leading finally to Kepler's interpretation. Similarly, from a young age, children are exposed to a wealth of information that they then analyze. This analysis is then followed by a process of testing hypotheses and generalizing the laws that yield accurate predictions. This, with the many mistakes that it involves along the way, ultimately leads to a fully fledged Theory of the Mind.

The Modular Theory as proposed by Jerry Fodor argues against the Child-Scientist Theory, stating that mind reading is not the result of a laborious process of attempts in generating a working theory but rather comes from a module that is innate to humans and is triggered into activity in the early years of growth. A "module" is described as a cognitive mechanism that is epistemologically inaccessible - in other words, we cannot have conscious knowledge of how it works. All we know of the mechanism is its output. The best known outputs of this mechanism are visual illusions, which are part of another module, the visual system. Even when we know that the information we are receiving from the visual module is false, that knowledge of its falseness does not succeed in correcting our visual processing - we still see the illusion, even though, through our mental processing module, we know it to be false.

Motion Illusion

Because the module is not under our conscious control, our use of it is not voluntary. Going back to the visual illusion, what this means is that we are not able to control the output. We still see what we know to be false. Moreover, a module does not have access to external resources - the visual system can’t "call in" the auditory system for help, and vice versa. Lastly, a module is domain specific - for example, the visual system cannot analyze auditory data.

Something that can be used to test both the Child-Scientist and Modular Theories of the Mind is the False Belief Task. This is a task usually given to children aged between the ages of three and five. It is used to assess if these children are able to recognize that other people can have a false belief about something. For example, a very simple one might involve showing children a box of chocolates. Upon opening the box, however, the children realizes that it is filled, not with chocolates, but with pencils. The children are then asked what others might think the chocolate box contains. Children of about three years and younger usually answer "pencils", while children of five years or older correctly answer "chocolates". The younger children have not yet developed the ability to ascribe a false belief to another person and infer from that ascription how the person would act. The older children have developed this ability, and therefore they correctly answer that a person can mistakenly believe that the chocolate box contains chocolates, not pencils. This is a key point, since it is not only about mind reading, but it also investigates at what age children become able to interpret other people’s thoughts and beliefs correctly in any given situation.

The Child-Scientist theorist has a slightly easier time with the False Belief Task test. On this model, it can be argued that at around three years of age, children understand perceptions and desires, but they cannot yet conceptualize them from another's point of view. They know that the chocolate box contains pencils, so they cannot conceptualise that somebody else might not know this. As they grow, however, they develop the skill of ascribing beliefs to other people that might be different to their own. So they become able to correctly answer the question of the False Belief Task. The Modular Theorist cannot use this argument, since their model is based on the view that modules are innate. The answer that a Modular theorist usually gives to this conundrum is that a module has to be "triggered" into action to work. So the module is not something that just "works", like the visual or circulatory systems. It has to be exposed to experiences, which will then make it "go online".

The main criticism leveled against the Child-Scientist Theory is that if our mental processing is similar to scientific research, then it is difficult to accept that most children, from a vast range of environmental and educational backgrounds, develop a similar Theory of the Mind within a very narrow age band. For its part, the Modular Theory involves the idea of a trigger that is not convincing for many. In particular, the question arises as to how the module seems to come into action with regard to some mental states (understanding of desires and beliefs) but not others (understanding of false beliefs in others). Not only that, but children of three years old do seem to understand the idea of beliefs, they are just unable to imagine that other people would hold false beliefs. This has also been found to be the case with people with such conditions as autism and schizophrenia. This mean that the module is active, just not completely so, which requires analysis.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the two versions might be, there is definitely an argument for the existence of a Theory of Mind. This is evidenced by the finding that children younger than three are unable to ascribe certain mental attributes to others (such as beliefs) but develop this ability during their later years. So, around the age of five, we might say that we are technically able to read other people's minds - without even the need for a superhero's cape!


  • Leslie A., Scholl B. (1999), “Modularity, Development and 'Theory of the Mind'”, Mind and Language, Volume 14, Number 1.

  • Gopnik A., Wellman M. (1992), “Why the Child’s Theory of the Mind Really is a Theory”, Mind and Language, Volume 7, Number 1 and 2.

  • Premack D., Woodruff G. (1978), “Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?”, Behavioral And Brain Sciences, Volume 1, Issue 4.

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Giulia Domiziana Toffoli

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