Development of the social brain from age three to twelve years

Hilary Richardson*, Grace Lisandrelli, Alexa Riobueno-Naylor, Rebecca Saxe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human adults recruit distinct networks of brain regions to think about the bodies and minds of others. This study characterizes the development of these networks, and tests for relationships between neural development and behavioral changes in reasoning about others' minds ('theory of mind', ToM). A large sample of children (n = 122, 3-12 years), and adults (n = 33), watched a short movie while undergoing fMRI. The movie highlights the characters' bodily sensations (often pain) and mental states (beliefs, desires, emotions), and is a feasible experiment for young children. Here we report three main findings: (1) ToM and pain networks are functionally distinct by age 3 years, (2) functional specialization increases throughout childhood, and (3) functional maturity of each network is related to increasingly anti-correlated responses between the networks. Furthermore, the most studied milestone in ToM development, passing explicit false-belief tasks, does not correspond to discontinuities in the development of the social brain.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1027
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Early online date12 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018


  • agency
  • cognitive neuroscience
  • empathy
  • psychology


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