Theory of Mind and Language Evolution; What can psychopathology tell us?

Theory of Mind is the ability to infer other persons’ mental states and emotions. It is thought to have evolved as part of the human’s social brain and probably emerged as an adaptive response to increasingly complex primate social interaction.

Brüne and Brüne-Cohrs (2006) explore the ‘evolutionary cost’ of language evolution:

This sophisticated ‘metacognitive’ ability comes at an evolutionary cost, reflected in a broad spectrum of psychopathological conditions. Extensive research into autistic spectrum disorders has revealed that theory of mind may be selectively impaired, leaving other cognitive faculties intact. Recent studies have shown that observed deficits in theory of mind task performance are part of a broad range of symptoms in schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, some forms of dementia, ‘psychopathy’ and in other psychiatric disorders.

Now it’s fairly uncontroversial to assert that without the ability of theory of mind humans would have never evolved language (Sperber and Wilson, 2002). This is due to the fact that if one can’t attribute another to have a ‘mind’ like ones own, or assume that other minds hold different information to ones own then one would see little point in trying to share information. (I’m sorry for the amount of ‘ones’ in that sentence).

Sooo, it does not seem presumptuous to assume that people interested in the evolution of language should be interested in theory of mind, in fact for many years evolutionary linguists, psychologists and biologists have been looking into this, but mostly through observing the behaviour of animals, and especially primates to see if they display theory of mind capabilities. A good summary of this work can be found here, and a lot of relevant studies can be found on this blog in the What makes humans unique? posts by Michael. I’m not going to look at the animal data in this post, but instead what the deficiencies in some human conditions can tell us about the evolution of theory of mind. That is, what can autism, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, dementia, ‘psychopathy’ and other psychiatric disorders tell us?

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How and Why did Madness Evolve??

I’m reading a book at the minute called ‘The descent of madness: Evolutionary Origins of Psychosis and the Social Brain’ by Jonathan Burns. I thought I’d summarise some of the theories in the book as to how schizophrenia came about, for the principle reason that it’s very bloody interesting.

Some evolutionary thinkers have posited that schizophrenia is a recent disorder which is a modern response to the stresses of the industrial and technological age. Burns argues against this and claims that there is evidence of schizophrenia from early human history.

So, how and why did schizophrenia evolve when it has such a maladaptive nature? It’s certainly not being selected out because the phenotype still persists with a similar rate of incidence across the human race.

The Adaptionist Programme has a solution for this problem of mental disorders in that it views them as behavioural traits which evolved due to an advantage for the the individual in the ‘ancestral environment’, however, now, in a world which has changed and become psychologically stressful, a mismatch is created between the evolved trait and the modern environment.

The persistence of the phenotype can also be explained by taking into account the fact that psychotic illness has a continuum on which schizophrenia is a severe end of the spectrum, because of this other phenotypes on the genetic spectrum could harbour particularly adaptive traits. Genetically related but unaffected individuals who share some of the milder features of the illness may possess some kind of evolutionary advantage and hence the phenotype would linger.

The hypotheses above are plausible by Jonathan Burns claims he has a better solution:

Our hominid ancestors evolved a sophisticated neural network supporting social cognition and adaptive interpersonal behaviour (in other words the social brain). This has been identified, using functional imaging, to be comprised in the fronto-temporal and fronto-parietal cortical networks. Psychosis (and schizophrenia in particular) are characterised by functional and structural deficits in these areas and hence the term ‘social brain disorders’ are fitting.

Schizophrenics display abnormalities in a wide range of social cognition tasks such as emotion recognition, theory of mind and affective responsiveness and as a result individuals with schizophrenia find themselves disadvantaged in the social arena and vulnerable to the stresses of their complex social environments.

So, since there is such evidence to support that the areas which comprise our ‘social brains’ are the same regions which contribute to the disorder of schizophrenia when functional and structural deficits are present it becomes clear that schizophrenia exists as a consequence to the complex social brain.

This is a desirable hypothesis due to the fact that it does not rely on a Cartesian model of an isolated ethereal mind separated from body and environment, and instead concentrates on a physically and socially integrated construct of mind, embodied in the living world.


I’d just like to add a small disclaimer which says that I’m not an expert in schizophrenia or pretty much anything I’m writing about here (I haven’t even finished the book) so sorry if I’ve got anything hideously wrong. Please tell me. I’ll revisit this with extra thoughts on the subject once I have finished the book.

In other news and on the subject of evolutionary psychology here’s a really fun and ridiculously geeky thing I found:

Evolutionary Psychology Bingo!

Schizophrenia and brain evolution (plus bold adjectives) When exploring the etiology of schizophrenia, a feat that has mostly eluded understanding for over 100 years, a common denominator emerges in that associated deficiencies are rooted in cognitively demanding tasks. One suggestion is that, where schizophrenic individuals are involved, disorganised thoughts, abnormal speech, auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions are symptomatic consequences of our haphazardly evolved brains. It might not seem revelatory, nor is it a particularly new thought on the matter, yet this disorder clearly has ties with human-specific, recently evolved behaviours, such as language and social relationships. And it is here in which our problem emerges: we don’t even know how language or social relationships evolved. In fact, the evolution of the human brain is still very much an enigma, despite the whole host of literature having you believe otherwise. As Darwin put it: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge[…]”.

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My first post of this science-focused blog (and it's not about science)

I was planning quite a lengthy post about schizophrenia to kick-start my latest attempt at blogging. Then I read this:

Website age ratings ‘an option’

The option comes from culture secretary, Andy Burnhman, who envisions a future in which the Internet meets the high standards of decency embodied by British television – i.e. [feel free to insert your own witty remark equating some aspect of the BBC with this future internet]. Basically, the whole furore is over children (you know, that demographic unable to protect themselves) and their ability to use this internet thingy to view beheadings; and other material deemed not suitable for children. Burnhumans himself, had this to say:

This isn’t about turning back the clock. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways, but we haven’t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around it.

Look, we can all see the good intentions behind these proposals. But we don’t need the government to help us navigate – googlemaps is quite capable of this task. Seriously though, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how we can go from protecting children to full net censorship. Television and radio are already hotspots for such intense adherence to authoritarian rules, even if channel four believes itself to be the rebellious child of British television. The great thing about the net is that it allows us to roam freely in these information fields, consisting of porn, search engines (for porn) and everything else. Good times.