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Can your kids read your mind?

Sun, 5th Aug 2007

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As a new dad, Dr Chris may feel like his baby can read his mind. And now researchers in Italy have shown that he may actually be right.

One of the unique characteristics that makes us human is our ability to “mind-read”, or represent in our own heads what someone else might be thinking. Experts think that this is at the heart of human understanding and communication. But nobody really knows at what point in life we develop this ability – some people think we acquire it around 3-4 years of age, while others argue that babies have the ability from birth.

Luca Surian, a psychologist at the University of Trento in Italy, and his colleagues have just published a paper in the journal Psychological Science showing that 13-month-old babies are able to “read our minds”, and figure out what someone else is thinking.

The scientists made the babies watch an animation of a caterpillar searching for either an apple – the caterpillar’s dinner of choice or cheese hidden behind two screens. In some scenes, the caterpillar could see a human hand pointing to the apple, but in other scenes there was no such clue. The caterpillar was either successful finding their preferred food, or went to the wrong screen.

When the animation showed the caterpillar doing the “wrong thing” – going to the other screen even when a hand was pointing to the right one, the babies tended to stare at the animation for longer. The scientists conclude that this means the babies were puzzled about the caterpillar’s actions.

They suggest that even at this young age, babies have the capacity to predict how others might behave in response to the available information – effectively “mind reading”, however simple. So watch out next time your baby stares at you with a puzzled look – they might be reading your mind!


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