Doll Play Prompts Social Thinking and Social Talking: Representations of Internal State Language in the Brain

Salim Hashmi, Ross E. Vanderwert, Amy L. Paine, Sarah A. Gerson

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Doll play provides opportunities for children to practice social skills by creating imaginary worlds, taking others’ perspectives, and talking about others’ internal states. Previous research using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) found a region over the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) was more active during solo doll play than solo tablet play, implying that doll play might present opportunities for rehearsing theory of mind and empathy skills, even when playing alone. In this research, we addressed this more directly by investigating 4–8-year-old children's (N = 33) use of internal state language (ISL; i.e., references to emotions, desires, and cognitions) when playing with dolls and on tablets, both by themselves and with a social partner, and their associated brain activity in the pSTS using fNIRS. We found that children used more ISL about others when playing with dolls than when playing on tablets, particularly when they were playing alone. This mirrored the patterns seen in pSTS activity in previous research. When individual variability in ISL about others was considered, more ISL about others was linked to stronger pSTS activation. Thus, variability in pSTS activity during play is not about the perceptual or physical differences between toys (e.g., dolls are more human-like) but about what children think about when they engage in different kinds of play. This is the first research to investigate brain activity during spontaneously occurring ISL and indicates that children have a tendency to take and discuss others’ perspectives during doll play, with implications for social processing in the brain. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at

Original languageEnglish
JournalDevelopmental Science
Early online date6 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Aug 2021


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