Growing up blind does not change the neural bases of Theory of Mind

TitleGrowing up blind does not change the neural bases of Theory of Mind
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsBedny, M., Pascual-Leone A., & Saxe R.
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Pagination11312 - 11317
Date Published07/2009

Humans reason about the mental states of others; this capacity is called Theory of Mind (ToM). In typically developing adults, ToM is supported by a consistent group of brain regions: the bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ), medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), precuneus (PC), and anterior temporal sulci (aSTS). How experience and intrinsic biological factors interact to produce this adult functional profile is not known. In the current study we investigate the role of visual experience in the development of the ToM network by studying congenitally blind adults. In experiment 1, participants listened to stories and answered true/false questions about them. The stories were either about mental or physical representations of reality (e.g., photographs). In experiment 2, participants listened to stories about people’s beliefs based on seeing or hearing; people’s bodily sensations (e.g., hunger); and control stories without people. Participants judged whether each story had positive or negative valance. We find that ToM brain regions of sighted and congenitally blind adults are similarly localized and functionally specific. In congenitally blind adults, reasoning about mental states leads to activity in bilateral TPJ, MPFC, PC, and aSTS. These brain regions responded more to passages about beliefs than passages about nonbelief representations or passages about bodily sensations. Reasoning about mental states that are based on seeing is furthermore similar in congenitally blind and sighted individuals. Despite their different developmental experience, congenitally blind adults have a typical ToM network. We conclude that the development of neural mechanisms for ToM depends on innate factors and on experiences represented at an abstract level, amodally.

Short TitleProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences