Super-you: We’re All Reading Each Others Minds, All the Time

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This mind reading piece is written by Gilead Amit.  As Amit notes,being able to predict what other people think is the secret sauce of culture and social connections.

According to psychologist Joseph Call we all possess a “theory of mind” that informs us every waking moment.  “When we get dressed in the morning, we’re constantly thinking about what other people think about us.”  He says that no other animal can match our ability to think about the minds of others and that this is the essential lubricant for social interactions that sets humans apart.  We humans are not unique in this ability, but our ability is superior to other species.

Artists need to imagine what their audiences will think of their characters.  A theory of mind is critical to compelling TV soaps, sculptures or books.  Some think William Shakespeare had a particularly well-developed theory of mind to create such rich, complex characters (See “Shakespeare:  Unleashing a tempest in the brain” by David Robson in the 15 April 2014 issue of the New Scientist).

Mind reading establishes society norms.  People not only respond to what we do, but to what we intend to do.  For example, if you hit someone with your car, the difference between a verdict of murder or manslaughter depends on your intent.

Psychologist Rory Devine notes that we can’t all read minds equally well.  Most of us have difficulty when attempting nested levels of mind reading.  For example, think of Sally hunting for her cake, but imagine where she might look if we take into account  what she thinks about how Andy’s mind works.  The more recursive steps we add, the more  difficult it becomes.  Call says, “When you go beyond five levels, people get really bad.  HM does not believe that he can get even close to four levels, much less five.

Obviously being a good mind reader is an important skill.  Children who are relatively proficient later report being less lonely and their teachers rate them as more sociable.

Devine says that that “the ability to read minds is something we might learn gradually from the guidance of others.”  This mind reading apparatus mostly develops before the age of 5, and the principal factor that determines its development is whether our families and friends talk much about the emotions and motivations of others.

Perhaps the first step is to think about what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes.  Devine and his colleagues showed that this learning can continue far beyond early childhood.  When they asked 9 and 10 year old children to read and discuss short vignettes about social situations, the children developed better mind reading skills than children in a control group.  It appears that we’re never too old to be a better mind reader.  Similar improvements have also been seen in people over the age of 60.


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