On the relation between theory of mind and executive functioning: A developmental cognitive neuroscience perspective

  • Mark Wade
  • Heather Prime
  • Jennifer M. Jenkins
  • Keith O. Yeates
  • Tricia Williams
  • Kang Lee
Theoretical Review


Theory of mind (ToM) and executive functioning (EF) show marked interrelatedness across childhood, and developmental psychologists have long been interested in understanding the nature of this association. The present review addresses this issue from a cognitive neuroscience perspective by exploring three hypotheses regarding their functional overlap: (1) ToM relies on EF (EF→ToM); (2) EF relies on ToM (ToM→EF); and (3) ToM and EF are mutually related, owing to shared neural structures or networks (ToM↔EF). Drawing on evidence from normative brain development, neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases, patient lesion studies, and brain-imaging studies, we suggest that only a strict version of the ToM↔EF proposal of complete neural overlap can be confidently ruled out on the basis of existing evidence. The balance of evidence suggests that separable neurobiological mechanisms likely underlie ToM and EF, with shared mechanisms for domain-general processing that support both abilities. We highlight how future studies may empirically substantiate the nature of the ToM–EF relationship using various biobehavioral approaches.


Theory of mind Executive functioning Cognitive neuroscience Neuropsychological Neuroimaging Brain development 


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Wade
    • 1
  • Heather Prime
    • 2
  • Jennifer M. Jenkins
    • 3
  • Keith O. Yeates
    • 4
  • Tricia Williams
    • 5
  • Kang Lee
    • 6
  1. 1.Division of Developmental MedicineBoston Children’s Hospital of Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural NeurosciencesMcMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada
  3. 3.Department of Applied Psychology and Human DevelopmentUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  4. 4.Department of Psychology, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research InstituteUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyHospital for Sick ChildrenTorontoCanada
  6. 6.Dr Eric Jackman Institute of Child StudyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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