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Concept of mind in non-human primates

Sarah Towner

Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK


29 Jan 2009


29 Jan 2010


1 Mar 2010






theory of mind, cognition, chimpanzee


Research concerning animal cognition explores the abilities and capacity of animals to perceive, think and conceive. As an extension of this, researchers have tried to ascertain the concept of animal minds. The field has been a matter of great debate as it has brought into question the uniqueness of the human mind. This dissertation will review the various areas of research that have contributed to our understanding of animal minds, with a specific focus on non-human primates. The term ‘theory of mind’ was originally proposed by Premack and Woodruff in 1978. The ability entails a recognition and understanding of another's mental states. Recently, this term has included the cognition of seeing. Throughout this article, the important distinction between theory of mind capabilities and complex behavioural analysis is emphasized. It is important to consider how various primates represent entities in their environment, including their own image. In particular reference to this latter point, self-recognition could act as a first step towards understanding others. With this ability, other individuals may then be understood and manipulated through deception, imitation and teaching. In addition to deception, pretend play and external representation are proposed as another dimension of understanding false representations. Decisions about the evolutionary point at which theory of mind may have developed will depend on interpretations of the evidence for these abilities in non-human primates and whether indeed theory of mind is underlying them. Since the conception of the term ‘theory of mind’, the issue may have evolved beyond whether or not there is theory of mind in non-human primates to a more sophisticated appreciation that the concept of mind has many facets and some of these may exist in non-human primates while others may not.

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