By studying rhesus monkeys, researchers have identified a brain network dedicated to processing social interactions — a discovery that offers tantalizing clues to the origins of our ability to understand what other people are thinking.
Scientists call our ability to understand another person’s thoughts — to intuit their desires, read their intentions, and predict their behavior — theory of mind. It’s an essential human trait, one that is crucial to effective social interaction. But where did it come from? Working with rhesus macaque monkeys, researchers in Winrich Freiwald’s Laboratory of Neural Systems at The Rockefeller University have discovered tantalizing clues about the origins of our ability to understand what other people are thinking. As reported in Science on May 18, Freiwald and postdoc Julia Sliwa have identified areas in the brains of these primates that are exclusively dedicated to analyzing social interactions. And they may have evolved into the neural circuitry that supports theory of mind in the human brain.