The Mind's “I”: Children's Conception of the Mind as an Active Agent


  • We wish to thank Brian MacWhinney for his help in our use of the CHILDES system; the University of Michigan Division of Kinesiology Kid Sport Program and the University of Michigan Children's Center for their cooperation in allowing us to interview children; Michelle Hollander and Carolyn Schult for their assistance; and the children and parents who participated. A portion of these data were presented at the meetings of SRCD, New Orleans, March 1993. Support for this research was provided by NICHD grant HD-22419 to the first author.

should be sent to Henry M. Wellman, Center for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan, 300 N. Ingalls Bldg., 10th Floor, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-0406.


1 hypothesis about children's developing conception of the mind is that preschoolers are limited to an understanding that persons have internal, mental contents like thoughts and beliefs, whereas older children and adults conceive of the mind itself as an independent, active structure or processor. Adults' conception of the mind in this independent active fashion seems evident in their use of personified mental metaphor (e.g., “My mind tricked me”). 3 studies examined the development and consolidation of this active, personified view. Study 1 provided an analysis of natural language data regarding 1 child's uses of vision words such as see and look from age 2 1/2 to 8 years. We examined the child's use of such words to refer literally to perception (e.g., “I see the TV”) and also to refer nonliterally to active mental processes such as comprehension and inference (e.g., “I see what you mean”). Studies 2 and 3 examined 6-, 8-, and 10-year-olds' comprehension and production of mental metaphors. In a metaphor comprehension task, we asked children to interpret personified metaphoric statements about the mind (e.g., “My mind wandered”) and 3 comparison domains, mechanics (e.g., “The car is dead”), nature (e.g., “The wind is howling”), and emotion (e.g., “Her heart was smiling”). In an explanation task, we asked children to explain the processes underlying the making of both instant photos and mental images. The findings reveal a developing ability to interpret and produce statements personifying the mind and provide considerable evidence about children's movement toward a conception of the mind as an independent entity deserving reference and conceptualization in its own right.