Theory of Mind: Historical Developments and Implications for Folklorists

Brandon Barker (Indiana University Bloomington)

A pervasive mental ability of humans, possibly unique to our species, is the ability to reason by way of abstracted role-based relations. Examples include, on the one hand, reasoning about physical properties of objects in the world via our higher-order understanding of, for examples, weight, color, or temperature. On the other hand, and more to the point for folklorists, are the ways that humans reason about each other’s behaviors via higher-order representations of mental states, including beliefs, desires, fears, and intentions. For nearly half a century, the latter socially-oriented varieties of higher-order reasoning have been referred to and rigorously studied by scientists and philosophers of mind as theory of mind (ToM).
This talk will briefly outline the major interdisciplinary developments of ToM research, beginning with comparative psychologists Premack and Woodruff’s (1978) coining of the term in “Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?,” moving through ToM’s role in developmental psychologists’ work on children’s imaginary play; the false-belief-task experimental paradigm; and finally into the contemporary separation of ToM scholars into at least two camps, the so-called Theory-Theory and Simulation-Theory camps.
The talk will conclude by highlighting ToM’s importance to folkloristic scholarship, especially for those of us working on children’s folklore, belief studies, and certain threads of performance theory.

Part of V1-05 Toward a Theory of Mind in Folkloristics, Wednesday, October 11, 1:00 pm–3:00 pm