'Mindreading' Mammals? Attribution of Belief Tasks with Dolphins

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'Mindreading' or theory of mind (ToM) refers to the capacity to attribute mental states to others. This ability is regarded as a critical component of what has, to date, exclusively characterized the advanced social cognition displayed by humans. The false belief task is a key test for ToM in different animal species. On a standard non-verbal false belief task, humans pass from age 4, whereas non-human primates consistently fail. Neuroanatomical and behavioural evidence for dolphins, however, indicates that they are capable of passing ToM tasks. The current paper represents a synthesis of the relevant dolphin research on neocortical evolution and non-invasive behavioural tests of precursors for ToM and the attribution of beliefs. The success of dolphins on attribution of belief tasks, in the absence of learning or cueing, indicates that they are capable of 'mindreading'. What are the implications of animal 'mindreading'? ToM tasks probe for reflexive consciousness and, by this criterion, dolphins may display reflexive consciousness. The implication of this conclusion is that future behavioural studies of social cognition will have considerable ethical and legal implications for animal welfare.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2001

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