Unit IV: Neurocognitive Theories

1. Theory of Mind

2. Executive Functioning

3. Central Coherence

4. Implications in Learning and Educational Implications


1. Theory of Mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand the desires, intentions and beliefs of others, and is a skill that develops between 3 and 5 years of age in typically developing children.

How Does Theory of Mind Develop?

We aren’t born immediately knowing that others have unique beliefs and desires that are unique from our own. It turns out that there are several developmental precursors (or skills) that infants need to develop their theory of mind later on Westby & Robinson, 2014).

These skills include the ability to comprehend the concept of attention, understand the intentions of others, and the ability to imitate others are all rungs on the ladder you must climb before reaching the platform of theory of mind.

Other developmental precursors necessary of theory of mind to develop include (i) pretending to be someone else (like a doctor or a cashier); (ii) understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; and (iii) understanding ther people and have different likes/dislikes.

Paying Attention to Other People

According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, attention is one of the first underlying precursors to the development of a fully-fledged theory of mind.

This involves recognizing that seeing is not merely looking, but rather we can selectively direct our attention to specific objects and people (Baron-Cohen, 1991). A key example of this attention is joint attention.

Joint attention occurs when two people direct their attention towards the same thing of interest – often doing via pointing so as to direct another’s attention to the same source.

When infants understand this gesture, they are simultaneously processing another person’s mental state, recognizing that this object is something that another person thinks is of interest (Baron-Cohen, 1991), thus illustrating the beginning phases of the theory of mind.

Intentionality (knowing that people act according to the things they want)

A second core component that contributes to the development of the theory of mind is that of intentionality, or the understanding that others’ actions are goal-directed and arise out of unique beliefs and desires, as defined by philosopher Daniel Dennett (1983).

Toddlers as young as 2 years old exhibit an understanding of intentionality (Luchkina et al., 2018) as do chimpanzees and orangutans (Call & Tomasello, 1998).

To understand that people act in a way that is motivated by their desires (for example, I am hungry so I will reach for that apple) is to understand that other people have their own desires (she must be hungry), thus demonstrating a theory of mind, or attributing mental states to others.

Imitation (Copying Other People)

Imitating others is a third building block of theory of mind. The ability to imitate others is to recognize recognizing that others have their own beliefs and desires.

For example, bridging attention and intentionality, imitation can result when a child realizes that others direct their attention (to an object, etc.) and do so intentionally (motivated by goal-directed behavior).

Internalizing these two concepts, the child then engages in imitation and may direct his or her eyes towards that specific object or scene.

However, there is some pushback that imitation is not as much of a crucial precursor for theory of mind. A 2000 longitudinal study found that the infants’ imitation scores were not associated with later theory of mind ability (Charman, 2000).

Stages of Theory of Mind

Between ages 4-5, children really start to think about others’ thoughts and feelings, and this is when true theory of mind emerges. The actual development of the theory of mind generally follows an agreed-upon sequence of steps (Wellman, 2004; Wellman & Peterson, 2012):

Tasks Listed From Easiest to Most Difficult

Simply described, “Theory of Mind” is the ability to attribute thoughts and feelings to others. Individuals with ASD generally have difficulty imagining how other people may be feeling in a situation or forming hypotheses about what others may be thinking. Because of this, understanding the nuances of social interaction may be very difficult.

Students with ASD are often unable to discern unwritten social rules and may find themselves in social difficulty because of their inability to perceive the subtleties of interaction. Very often, direct teaching and ongoing mentoring are necessary to help the student develop an awareness of expectations and to generalize appropriate responses and behaviours across the school environment. Although it is difficult for many students with ASD to develop a comprehensive understanding of what other people may be thinking or feeling, such students can be provided with the tools needed to manage their social behaviours and establish relationships with others to the best of their ability.

2. Executive Functioning

Executive function is a term that is widely used in autism circles to describe a broad array of skills that have to do with an individual’s cognitive function. Some sources say that up to 80% of those with autism suffer from executive function disorder, leading to difficulties managing time, completing tasks, and making what for many of us would be simple tasks – like cleaning our rooms – very complicated or seemingly impossible.

For some people with ASD, social and communication difficulties are not the primary issue. They are socially engaged and are doing their best to communicate frequently, but they are unable to respond in a timely and organized way to the requests of parents and teachers, or to organize and initiate sophisticated play because they have considerable difficulty with executive function.

What is executive function?

The technical definition of executive function is: the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions. But what does that look like in real life?

It includes skills such as:

1.     Organizing

2.     Planning

3.     Paying attention

4.     Inhibiting inappropriate responses

Many people with autism have difficulty with executive functioning. They may have trouble with certain skills like planning, staying organized, sequencing information, and self-regulating emotions.

Some people pay attention to minor details, but have trouble seeing how these details fit into a bigger picture.  

Others have trouble maintaining their attention in the classroom or other settings.

When preparing to do a task, some may find it hard to organize their thoughts and actions in order to figure out what sequence of steps are needed.  

Executive functioning difficulties can also be associated with poor impulse control.  

Some have difficulty with complex thinking that requires holding more than one train of thought at the same time. For instance, Temple Grandin once said: "I cannot hold one piece of information in my mind while I manipulate the next step in the sequence."  

Executive  function  in  autism  has  most  commonly  been  tested  using  the Wisconsin  Card  Sorting  Task  (WCST)  (Grant  &  Berg,  1948)  which  relies  on cognitive shifting ability. In this task, participants sort cards and are given feedback based  on  a  rule  that  they  have  not  been  told.  The  feedback  allows  the  rule  to  be ascertained but, without the participant’s knowledge, the rule  is changed every  time ten cards have been sorted. Participants are scored based on how many perseverative responses  they  make.  That  is,  the  number  of  cards  they  sort  based  on  a  previously correct category  despite  being  given  negative  feedback  when  the  rule  changed.  The majority  of  studies  have  found  that  individuals  with  autism  perform  worse  on  the WCST,  displaying   increased  perseveration  and  difficulties  in  shifting  between sorting  strategies  (Bennetto  et  al.,  1996;  Ozonoff &  McEvoy,  1994;  Prior  & Hoffman, 1990). Similar results are found  when using Tower of Hanoi (Bennetto et al., 1996; Ozonoff & McEvoy, 1994) or Tower of London tasks (Shallice, 1982) that involve  planning  and  working  memory.  Individuals  with  autism  show  poor  task performance relative to control individuals.

Executive functioning issues can cause challenges in the classroom setting. Few tips to help students with autism succeed in the classroom: 

3. Central Coherence

The  third  major  theory  of  autism  is  that  weak  central  coherence  (WCC) underlies   the   condition   (Frith,   1989).   WCC   refers   to   a   difficulty   integrating component  parts  of  a  visual  scene  to  create  a  coherent  whole.  Frith  suggested  that within  autism  there  is  a  deficit  in  the  cognitive  system  that  is  responsible  for  this process  of  extracting  overall  meaning,  causing  individuals  with  autism  to  process constituent  parts  of  an  item  as  separate  entities  rather  than  seeing  the  item  in  its entirety.  The  evidence  that  led  to  this  theory  comes  not  from  observed  deficits  but from  the  superior  performance  that  individuals  with  autism  demonstrate  on  various tasks. One of the distinctive characteristics of autism is the uneven cognitive profile that  is  seen  when  administering  IQ  measures.  While typical  individuals  show equivalent performance across all subtests, individuals with autism consistently show below  average  performance  in  the  verbal  tasks  and  above  average  performance  in non-verbal  measures  such  as  block  design  and  pattern  construction  (Shah  &  Frith, 1983;  1993).  An  even  more  striking  advantage  is  seen  on  The  Embedded  Figures Task  (EFT)  (Witkin  et  al.,  1971).  This  involves  the  detection  of  a  shape  that  is hidden within a picture, e.g. a triangle that is hidden in the line-drawing of a baby’s pram. Both children and adults with autism seem to detect the target faster than their typically  developing  counterparts  (Jolliffe  &  Baron-Cohen,  1997;  Shah  &  Frith, 1983).  


In 1989, Uta Frith* proposed the Weak Central Coherence Theory of autism. “Central coherence” was the term given to a human being’s ability to derive overall meaning from a mass of details. A person with strong central coherence, looking at an endless expanse of trees, would see “the forest.” A person with weak central coherence would see only a whole lot of individual trees.

It was Frith’s belief that other theories might account for the core deficits of individuals with ASDs, but could not account for their amazing strengths. For instance, some individuals with ASDs have “savant” skills –a remarkable ability in areas such as music, memory, or calculation. People on the spectrum tend to excel at focusing on extreme detail, and so are able to pick out a tiny element from a mass of complex data or objects. The notion of “weak central coherence” could explain both deficits and strengths. When a task required a person to extract global meaning from many details, to get the “big picture”, people with ASDs would be at a major disadvantage. When picking out extreme detail from surrounding masses of information was required, people with ASDs would be in a position to shine. They would be good at parts, but not at wholes.

Frith, who calls this “a detail-focused cognitive style”, stated in a recent article that weak central coherence is not just a failure to extract global form and meaning, but is also “an outcome of superiority in local processing” --something she views as a bias rather than a lack.

The term “central coherence” refers to the “neurotypical” (NT, i.e., non-autistic) tendency to pull information together and process information in context, looking for the “big picture” and drawing out meaning, often at the expense of details. By contrast, “weak central coherence” refers to the tendency in ASD to attend to and remember details rather than global form or meaning.

Some of the difficulties which may occur with weak Central Coherence:

·      Seeing connections and generalising skills.

·      Idiosyncratic focus of attention and inattentiveness to new tasks.

·      Difficulty prioritising and choosing.

·      Preference for the known (Cumine, Leach & Stevenson, 1998).

4. Implications in Learning and Educational Implications

Teachers' can facilitate a life time of successful learning by equipping students with a repertoire of strategies and tools for learning. The teacher plays an important role in the educational process. Effective teaching depends upon the evolution of innovative strategies and also the methodology of teaching. As we gain a more scientifically based understanding about today's novel brain and how it learns, we must rethink about what we do in classroom and school. Neuro scientists are mapping the pathways between body and brain, providing tangible evidence of the benefits of hands-on, experimental learning. Neurocognitive process includes a number of human functions through neuronal networks. Brain cells communicating with each other through on electrochemical process. Neurocognition includes perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging and reasoning processes. The neurocognitive approach is based upon certain irrefutable facts concerning brain functions, which are applied to the intervention strategies of student teachers developmental difficulties. The teachers must develop the competencies like content competency, contextual competency, communication competency, classroom management and evaluation competency. In this paper, we discuss how the brain and its functions are helpful to the teachers in teaching and bringing out the dimensions of teaching competency such as induction, content, pedagogy, organisation and assessment. We elucidate the Neurocognitive strategies are how helpful to bring out the secrets of amygdala and hippocampus involving in teaching strategies. We also emphasize that the recent development of designing Neurocognitive programme that focus on both cognitive and social development has theoretical and practical challenges.