Department or Program
Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor
Theory of Mind (ToM), the mental ability to represent other people’s beliefs and intentions, remains a faculty that is poorly understood on a computational level. While a “mentalizing network” of implicated brain structures exists, the interaction of these structures and their specific functions still requires further study. Furthermore, although it is known that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to exhibit impairments in ToM, the nature of these impairments is not known. In this thesis, ToM is investigated through a novel learning task which bears a similar structure to past ToM tasks, but requires participants to update their representations of another individual’s beliefs and intentions continuously over time. Participant behavior on this task was investigated using eight different computational models. Neurotypical individuals were able to complete the task, answering questions about beliefs and intentions with an accuracy significantly above chance. Although individuals with ASD had an accuracy on belief questions that was not significantly different from the control group, they were impaired in answering questions about intent. Similarly, a computational model based on the Rescorla-Wagner update rule was found that fit well to the control group, but this model fit much differently to the ASD population, and failed to perform as well in predicting ASD behavior. No model was found that predicted ASD behavior better than control behavior. This suggests heterogeneity in the way individuals with ASD compute ToM. While expanding current knowledge about the way neurotypical individuals generate ToM representations, these computational modeling results also provide an opportunity to better understand the neural underpinnings of these representations via neuroimaging.