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A clinical perspective on ‘theory of mind’, empathy and altruism: the hypothesis of somasia

Jean-Michel Le Bot


The article starts by recalling the results of recent experiments that have revealed that, to a certain extent, the “ability to simultaneously distinguish between different possible perspectives on the same situation” (Decety and Lamm 2007) exists in chimpanzees. It then describes a case study of spatial and temporal disorientation in a young man following a cerebral lesion in order to introduce the hypothesis that this ability is based on a specific process of somasia. By permitting self-other awareness, this process also provides subjects with anchor points in time and space from which they can perform the mental decentring that enables them to adopt various perspectives. This process seems to be shared by humans and certain animal species and appears to be subdivided into the processing of the identity of experienced situations, on the one hand, and of their unity on the other. The article concludes with a critique of overly reflexive and “representational” conceptions of theory of mind which do not distinguish adequately between the ability to “theorise” about the mental states of others and the self-other awareness ability (which is automatic and non-reflexive).


Social cognition; theory of mind; empathy; altruism; neuropsychology; somasia; humans; animals; mental states; decentring

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2014-001-lebo

Copyright (©) 2018 Jean-Michel Le Bot – Editorial format and Graphical layout: copyright (©) LED Edizioni Universitarie

Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
Editorial Board:
Ralph R. Acampora - Carol J. Adams - Vilma Baricalla - Luisella Battaglia - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Luigi Lombardi Vallauri - Christoph Lumer - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo

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