Development of the social brain from age three to twelve years
Over the past decade, fMRI research has made significant progress identifying functional divisions of labor within the adult “social brain." For example, in human adults, distinct networks of brain regions are recruited to reason about the bodies (physical sensations) and minds (mental states) of others. The current study characterizes the developmental trajectory of these two functionally specialized networks, and tests for relationships between functional specialization of these networks and behavioral developments in reasoning about the minds of others (“Theory of Mind”, ToM). A large cross-sectional sample of children ages three to twelve years old (n=122), in addition to a group of adults (n=33), watched a short, animated movie while undergoing fMRI. The movie highlights the physical sensations (often pain) and mental states (beliefs, desires, emotions) of the main characters, and, critically, provides an experimental context that is feasible and engaging for even the youngest children. Using interregional correlation analyses and reverse correlation analyses of the response timecourses in ToM and pain brain regions, we find evidence that 1) ToM and pain networks are functionally distinct by age three years, 2) functional specialization increases throughout childhood, and 3) functional maturity of each network is related to increasingly anti- correlated responses between the two networks. Further, these data provide evidence that the most studied milestone in ToM behavioral development, passing explicit false-belief tasks, does not correspond to discontinuities in the development of the social brain.
Saxe, R. (2013) The new puzzle of Theory of Mind development. In Navigating the Social World: What Infants, Children, and Other Species Can Teach Us. Ed: M Banaji & S Gelman. [PDF]
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