The study of cognition and theory of mind is an emerging field of science that receives its inputs from psychology, neuroscience and behavioural biology. Children are known to develop a theory of mind around the age of three to four years, and many experiments have been conducted to test this development in young children, and test the apparent absence of theory of mind in toddlers. If you know that I know something, you are said to have cognition, while if you know that I do not know something, you would have a theory of mind. Sounds fuzzy? An illustration might help.

I am in a room with you and a child. I keep a ball in a box and then I ask you to leave the room. I then hide the ball in a cupboard and call you back.

Now, the child knows where the ball is, and knows that you know that the ball was in the box.

I ask the child where you would look for the ball. At this stage, a person with a theory of mind (any adult) would point at the box, because he knows that you don’t have knowledge of the new position of the ball.

However, the child will point towards the cupboard, where she knows the ball is. She is not able to comprehend that you don’t know that the ball has been shifted, and so you should look in the box.

My son Ujaan was then about a year old. We were in a restaurant with friends, and Ayan had gone out for a while. Ujaan wanted to go with his father, and so I was trying to keep him busy by asking him to do various things. When I had exhausted the stock of nursery rhymes which he was used to acting out, and then the list of animals he “showed”, I started asking him to show me his various body parts. Then the guys came back and the food was served, and we got busy with the fish. Ujaan was a bit agitated about something, and I realized that he was trying to take off a shoe. First I tried to say no, and then when I realized he was determined to have his own way, I took off both his shoes. Then he wanted his socks out too. Exasperated, we let him have his way once more, wondering what was wrong. Ayan shook the shoes to see if there was something inside. Our son held up a foot by both his hands, gave a beaming smile all round and said “pa” (meaning foot in Bangla)! I realized that I had asked him to show me his foot, and had forgotten about it when the food arrived. But Ujaan had not forgotten, and all this time, he was trying to show me his foot. But how could he show his feet when they were hidden inside socks and shoes? So obviously, those had to be taken off!

The mother gave the son a hug, and the experimenter in me marveled at the elegant demonstration of the absence of a theory of mind!