Led On Line
Presentazione - About us
Novita' - What's new
Lededizioni Home Page Ricerca - Search
Catalogo - Catalogue
Per contattarci - Contacts
Per gli Autori - For the Authors
Statistiche - Statistics
Cookie Policy
Privacy Policy

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

Full Text:



Anzieu, Didier. 1989. The skin-ego. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2005. “Autism and the origins of social neuroscience.” In The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, edited by Alexander Easton and Nathan J. Emery, 239-255. Hove, Psychology Press.

Baron-Cohen, Simon, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith. 1985. “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?”, Cognition, 21(1): 37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8.

Beaud, Laurence. 2010. “L’écholalie chez l’enfant autiste : un trouble pragmatique de l’unité interactionnelle ?”, Neuropsychiatrie de l’enfance et de l’adolescence, 58: 168-176.

Bellamy, Olivier, Françoise Guérin-Bonvoisin, Chantal Le Gal, and Suzanne Pelé. 1994. “Clinique thérapeutique et asomasie. Comment soigner quand le thérapeute fait être le malade?”, Tétralogiques 8: 188-209.

Brackelaire, Jean-Luc, Attie Duval, Jean Giot, Christine Le Gac, and Laurence Meurant. 2006. Les mots se regardent. Initiation à un questionnement clinique sur le langage en sciences de l’homme. Namur, Presses Universitaires de Namur.

Call, Josep, and Michael Tomasello. 2008. “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(5): 187-192.

Cambier, Jean. 1995. “L’agnosie visuelle.” In Perceptions et agnosies. Séminaire Jean-Louis Signoret, edited by Bernard Lechevalier, Francis Eustache and Fausto Viader, 183-197. Brussels, De Boeck.

Caramazza, Alfonso, Annamaria G. Basili, and Jerry J. Koller. 1981. “An Investigation of Repetition and Language Processing in a Case of Conduction Aphasia”, Brain and Language, 14: 235-271.

Charnallet, Annick, and Serge Carbonnel. 2000. “L’évaluation des gnosies visuelles.” In Traité de neuropsychologie clinique, tome 1, edited by Xavier Seron and Martial Van der Linden, 207-224. Marseille, Solal.

Damasio, Antonio R. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, Putnam Publishing.

Decety, Jean, and Philip L. Jackson. 2004. “The functional architecture of human empathy”, Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3:71–100.

Decety, Jean, and Claus Lamm. 2007. “The Role of the Right Temporoparietal Junction in Social Interaction: How Low-Level Computational Processes Contribute to Meta-Cognition”, Neuroscientist, 13(6): 580-593.

De Guibert, Clément, and Laurence Beaud. 2005. “Différence entre autisme de Kanner et ‘psychose infantile’ : déficits d’unité vs d’identité de la situation”, La psychiatrie de l’enfant, 48(2):391-423.

De Guibert, Clément, Gilles Clerval, and Hubert Guyard. 2003. “Biaxialité saussurienne et biaxialité gestaltique : arguments cliniques”, Tétralogiques, 15: 225-252.

De Saussure, Ferdinand. (1916) 1983. Course in General Linguistics. LaSalle, IL: Open Court.

Duval-Gombert, Attie. 1993. Des lieux communs et des idées reçues, Doctoral Thesis, Rennes, University Rennes 2.

Gagnepain, Jean. (1991, 1993) 1995. Du vouloir dire. Traité d’épistémologie des sciences humaines; t. 1: Du signe. De l’outil, t. 2: De la personne. De la norme; t. 3: Guérir l’homme, former l’homme, sauver l’homme. Brussels, De Boeck.

Guyard, Hubert. 1987. Le concept d’explication en aphasiologie. Doctoral Thesis, University Rennes 2.

Hare, Brian, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello. 2001. “Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know?”, Animal Behaviour, 1: 139-151.

Hare, Brian, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello. 2006. “Chimpanzees deceive a human by hiding”, Cognition, 101(3): 495-514.

Hauser, Marc, 2005. “Our chimpanzee mind”, Nature, 437(7055): 60-63. Doi: 10.1038/nature03917.

Jakobson, Roman, and Moris Halle. 1956. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague, Mouton & Co - ‘S-Gravenhage.

Köhler, Wolfgang. 1925. The Mentality of Apes, London, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Le Bot, Jean-Michel, Clément de Guibert, Laurence Beaud, and Patrice Gaborieau. 2012. “Anthropologie clinique et langage animal”, Études rurales, 189: 75-90.

Melis, Alicia P., Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello. 2006. “Chimpanzees conceal visual and auditory informations from others”, Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(2): 154-162.

Penn, Derek C., Keith J. Holyoak, and Daniel J. Povinelli. 2008. “Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and non human minds”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31 (2): 109-178.

Penn, Derek C., and Daniel J. Povinelli. 2006. “On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 362(1480): 731-744.

Penn, Derek C., and Daniel J. Povinelli, in press. “The comparative delusion: the behavioristic/mentalistic dichotomy in comparative theory of mind research.” In Joint Attention and Agency, edited by Herbert Terrace and Janet Metcalfe. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Povinelli, Daniel J., and Jennifer Vonk. 2003. “Chimpanzee minds: suspiciously human?”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(4): 157-160.

Premack, David, and Guy Woodruff. 1978. “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4): 515-526.

Quentel, Jean-Claude. 1993. L’enfant. Problèmes de genèse et d’histoire. Brussels, De Boeck.

Sabouraud, Olivier, Jean Gagnepain, and Annette Sabouraud. 1963. “Vers un approche linguistique de l’aphasie”, Revue de neuropsychiatrie de l’Ouest, 1 : 6-13; 2 : 3-38; 3 : 3-38; 4 : 3-20.

Tomasello, Michael, Josep Call, and Brian Hare. 2003a. “Chimpanzees understand psychological states – The question is which ones and to what extent”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(6): 153-156.

Tomasello, Michael, Josep Call, and Brian Hare. 2003b. “Chimpanzees versus humans: it’s not that simple”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (6): 239-240.

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

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 - Barbara Muraca - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo