Theory of Mind
Considering Unseen Influences to Understand Others
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 21, 2019
Theory of mind is human capacity to consider underlying mental states associated with behaviors.
Although, my Bing feed primarily delivers psychology and wellness updates, the algorithmic gods know I pause to watch falls and foolishness. After watching a fifteen-second flick of human stupidity, I often wonder, “What the heck!” My wondering is an example of the human mind at work. We want more than the observed action; we want to fill in the blanks. Yet, the underlying causes are often missing; so we create a theory. We dig beneath the surface, grasping (or imagining) information from the underworld of the mind. We want to know motivating factors to refine future predictions. Our drive to know why and the ability to create a theory starts in childhood. Young children learn to employ a ‘theory of mind.’
‘Theory of mind’ is the implicit understanding that mental states are associated with action. We decipher the meaning of an action by predicting the mental states propelling the behavior. By appreciating the profound influence of mental states on action, we soften judgements and invite growth; or take offense and prepare for battle.
Theory of Mind: The ability to consider unseen influences on behavior by including histories, emotional states, and faulty beliefs when interpreting the meaning of words or action.
We face colossal flows of data, absorbing energy from our body and the world. Whether cutting words or subtle muscle inflections, we take note and assimilate. From the enormous to the miniscule, we observe and formulate meanings (a theory of mind)—he loves me, she’s mad, he’s an idiot, she’s an angel. Many observations quietly register in the right hemisphere without our explicit knowledge; but the information is imprinted, interpreted and stored. We sludge through mind-boggling mountains of details, integrate observations with memories and beliefs to create a theory. Biases, harsh judgements, as well as forgiving kindness form from our ‘theories of mind.’
Whether cutting words or subtle muscle inflections, we take note and assimilate.
Making sense of experience is a bidirectional process—bottom-up and top-down. Energy flows up to the cortex, integrates with memories and then flows back to the body and out to surrounding others. Somewhere in this complex movement of energy and information, we create a theory—a deeper meaning—imposing beliefs on the unknown. We predict from a smile or a scowl whether a person is safe or dangerous, honest or deceiving, loving or manipulating. These predictions give direction to the responding action.
Many regions in the brain and body are intimately involved in human interactions. Many scientists believe the complexity of human communication is the impetus pushing evolutionary growth in the human brain. Yet, the more the brain evolved to handle increasing data flow, the more complex the task of deciphering the intents of other evolving brains. The complexity demands increasing skill to navigate the chaotic clutter of consciousness. If we limit observations to overt behaviors, we miss valuable information.
An accurate theory of a working mind behind an action refines our ability to predict, helping us respond effectively—protectively or openly.
My two-year old grandson hurt me. After bringing him home to his parents, he erupted in joyous energy. Something about having his parents and grandparents in the same room ignites his confidence and enthusiasm. As I walked towards the door to leave, he sprinted past me, and threw open the front door. The aluminum guard violently cut into my little toe (I was wearing flip-flops). Energy flowed with authority. My nerves fired intense messages, demanding attention. My face grimaced and I yelped. These automatic reactions, consequently, send significant messages to nearby others. A loop of energy and information was transmitted, moving from my throbbing toe, to my brain, and then out to others. The poor little guy knew he hurt his beloved papa.
Our bodies feel pain and react. Under the intoxication of pain, I could have lashed out. But these moments can be mitigated. We can put on mental brakes to slow down the reactive process and draw upon deeper information before acting. Our primary goals get ignored when we are disoriented from felt experience. In this case, my primary goal of contributing to the development of a child could easily be forgotten in a reactionary rebuke. My toe was already damaged and no longer at risk. From a place of safety, we can invite top-down processing, responding with greater sensitivity and care. My grandson and I enjoyed a sacred moment of learning and bonding without dampening his enthusiasm for life. A lesson was learned (I now wear tennis shoes).
When we suffer injury, experience strong emotions, or sink into general malaise, the feeling affects need explaining. We scan surrounding elements for additional information. We incorporate the lumps of data with memories and beliefs to appraise and predict. This happens repeatedly throughout each moment of our lives. The process integrates new experience into memory. Healthy integration becomes wisdom, providing improved reflexive reactions; however, faulty perceptions of an experience invite defensive psychosis—protecting, avoiding and denying.
Energy flows from internal (feeling effects) or external events (observations). Lisa Barrett in her fabulous book How Emotions are Made writes, “From your brain’s point of view, locked inside the skull, your body is just another part of the world that it must explain” (2018, pg. 66). The brain receives messages from the throbbing toe or invading stranger. We feel and then translate the feelings into words (for more see focus on feelings). The more skilled we are at naming and explaining the smoother the integration.
Our existence is a constant collision with forces both inside and out. Each collision must be explained.
Barrett writes, “your brain must figure out the meaning of those flashes and vibrations, and its main clues are your past experiences, which it constructs as simulations within its vast network of neural connections. Your brain has learned that a single sensory cue, such as a loud bang, can have many different causes—a door being slammed, a bursting balloon, a hand clap, a gunshot. It distinguishes which of these different causes is most relevant only by their probability in different contexts.” (2018, pg. 58)
The body reacts, and the mind interprets. We not only think and feel, but know we are thinking and feeling. We also know others are thinking and feeling. Because we know this, we create a theory of what they are thinking and what they are feeling.
A theory is a prediction. A Theory of mind is a prediction about events occurring in the mind.
The mind is conceptual—not a physical structure. It’s a process. Siegel defines the mind as, “the activity of the brain and the sharing of energy and information within relationships create the mind.” (2015, location 4736). The mind is the process of sharing energy and information, both between different functions of the body and with others.
A ‘theory of mind’ is our ability to consider the contents of the processes involved in energy and information flow.
I proceed carefully, since this theory separates mental states from observable behaviors, breaking complexity into digestible fragments, risking over-simplification, viewing human thought as a machine with distinct and observable parts. Over-reliance on the parts, particularly unobservable parts, casting shadows of the Cartesian Error, separating mind and brain. Emotions, thoughts and motivation are intricately woven into the physical structures of the brain. Billions of firing neurons work in networks to communicate and create life. The mind is not an intangible ghost running a machine. Mind is not a distinct biological element communicating with the physical structures of the brain. Mind is part of that physical structure. The mind is a mystical representation constructed of words to assist with understanding of the complex functions of neurons, axons, dendrites and synapses. No single connection point (such as the pineal gland) exists between the mind and body. Everything acts together in bewildering wholeness.
However, to understand the whole, at times, we must examine the parts, creating names and symbols. The magical gift of a directed life represented through a mystical mind can broaden our understanding of human behavior. Once we learn from the symbolism than we should respectfully place the pieces back into the whole; and then stand in “awe.”
History of 'Theory of Mind'
Theory of Mind was originally coined by David Premack and Guy Woodruff in their study of chimpanzee’s social interactions. (1978). Later, Josef Perner and Heinz Wimmer (1983) brought Theory of Mind concepts to child development studies.
Using Theory of Mind to Understand Others
What does theory of mind have to do with the normal struggles to survive and flourish? Is there a practical take-away? The odd ability to construct theories of meaning is more than an unseen function operating beneath the veil of consciousness. The ability to create a ‘theory of mind’ is human; but creating useful theories is a skill. Attention to our constructed theories can initiate change—an improvement of accuracy, providing more predictability to relations. With careful observations, we identify self-protecting deceptions, discovering valuable data that may invite more flexibility, and healthy behavior.
Daniel Siegel refers to skilled use of ‘theory of mind’ as mindsight. Mindsight, he defines, is the ability to accurately perceive mental states in both ourselves and others. He writes, “through our ability to focus attention, mindsight also helps the body and brain achieve homeostasis—the internal balance, coordination, and adaptiveness that forms the core of health. Finally, mindsight can improve our relationships with our friends, colleagues, spouses, and children—and even the relationship we have with our own selves.” (2010, location 174).
Siegel’s concept of mindsight shares many traits with the popular concept of emotional intelligence.
Our minds create information from flows of energy. A naked toe, mostly ignored, intensely communicates when traumatized. The bottom up energy floods the mind, demanding a resolution. Once the energy is registered in the cortex, useful information can be retrieved and sent back to the angered nerves, cooling the firing circuitry.
Siegel explains that body-brain communications has a calming effect. By giving a feeling effect a name and meaning “helps to lift us out of the immediacy of an experience so that we can respond to it effectively. Knowing that our minds regulate the flow of both energy and information enables us to feel the reality of these two forms of mental experience—and then to act on them rather than get lost in them” (2010, location 1066-1068).
Once the energy is registered in the cortex, useful information can be retrieved and sent back to the angered nerves, cooling the firing circuitry.
Siegel wrote that “we can interpret the meaning of an emotion—understanding an eruption of sadness in our heart as a response to the loss of a loved one, becoming aware of a resulting sense of isolation and loneliness—and then be motivated to do something about it, perhaps by seeking comfort from a friend” (2010, location 1061).
With top-down processing, we calm the fiery feelings without ignoring them; “we hear their wisdom without being terrified by their screaming voices” (location 213).
Starting as children, we observe life and store information. We build vast databases of implicit and explicit memories. These memories infuse incoming energy with meaning. We gather, store and utilize our translation of facts to organize complexity. These memories are the foundation for understanding emotion, intention, and desire. These processes, ripe with past experience, are the building blocks for accurately understanding the mental states that motivate action.
Experience refines our ability to predict and prepare. Our body uses these predictions to manage energy. We appraise a situation, gathering particulars, theorizing mental states, and eventually arriving at a prediction.
Siegel wrote, “appraisal involves a complex web of evaluative mechanisms, in which both external and internal factors play active roles. The specific nature of appraisal incorporates past experience of the stimulus, including emotional and representational elements of memory; present context of the internal emotional state and external social environment; elements of the stimulus, such as intensity and familiarity; and expectations for the future” (2010, location 3548).
Barrett adds, “this efficient, predictive process is your brain’s default way of navigating the world and making sense of it. It generates predictions to perceive and explain everything you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch” (2018, pg. 60). “Prediction is such a fundamental activity of the human brain that some scientists consider it the brain’s primary mode of operation” (pg. 59). She continues, “your brain must explain bodily sensations to make them meaningful, and its major tool for doing so is prediction. So, your brain models the world from the perspective of someone with your body” (pg. 66).
Predictions are guesses. Guesses of what will come next. Our prediction, no matter how astute we believe it to be, can be wrong. Our theories of mental states are forays into the unknown, basing conclusions crafted from past experience. Life is dynamic and complex; errors are normal and constant. Our guesses are only correct when they match the internal experience of the other person. Whether we are a psychologist, police officer, or a doctor, we cannot perfectly predict. We routinely miss and confuse our own mental states; therefore, correctly identifying mental processes of others is sloppy. We arrive at a theory without intimate knowledge of many of the historical and contextual facts. Forming just good enough theories to effectively communicate requires working through the noise of our own ego, defenses, and projections. Predictions are essential; but limited.
Barrett warns, “to improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right.” However, “prediction errors aren’t problems. They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of your brain as it takes in sensory input.” (2018, pg. 195) It’s how we deal with prediction errors that can be problematic.
Our curious examinations, improve accuracy, leading to more moments of attunement where we resonate with others, creating connections and security. While we will never perfectly attune to others, we can draw closer to them, and mindfully discuss their experience, instead of relying on our unbending theories. We can flexibly adjust our predictions by remaining open to the other person’s account of their felt experience. By doing this, we allow them to be seen and felt.
Most children discover the nasty truth that predictions are fallible. We perceive others wrongly and others perceive us wrongly. Some exploit this. Masquerading as if they feel one thing only to deceive. As we develop mindsight, we gain agility to detect deceptions. We only succeed in varying degrees.
Our ability to improve the accuracy of our theories of mind is partly dependent on practiced observation of our own thoughts and emotions. In an odd sense, self-focused awareness on felt-experience produces skills that translate into skills to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. By knowing ourselves, we may come to know others. This isn’t automatic. We can’t be lost in our own internal worlds and expect that is enough. We must expand beyond our barriers of self and mindfully consider the experience of others.
Our prediction accuracy improves by attentive recognition of underlying theories, and purposely incorporating more complex and dynamic data during appraisals. This requires focusing on new aspects of experience. Our focus literally changes the experience.
Theory of mind social scientists often make a connection between theory of mind skill and executive control. For us to focus on mental states, we must create a space, inhibiting the normal flow of energy by redirecting attention to the internal world. This attention uncovers information previously missed, providing a wealth of new data for appraisals.
Siegel comments, “this ‘meta-awareness,’ or awareness of awareness, is a powerful skill that can liberate us from the prison of automatic reactions” (2010, location 726). Our focus on brain functions creates new linkage, integrating experience with more wisdom. “Knowing about the functions of the major regions of the brain can help you to focus your attention in ways that will create the desired linkage among them” (location 448). “By harnessing the power of awareness to strategically stimulate the brain’s firing, mindsight enables us to voluntarily change a firing pattern that was laid down involuntarily” (location 887).
‘Theory of mind’ will continue to quietly operate, serving a need to know, whether we focus attention or not. However, with a new focus on the process, giving attention to the existence of mental states, we can give structure to fragmented theories and additional flexibility to overly structured theories. With a pause, we allow energy to settle, where we can integrate feelings affects with helpful information. We then can attune to others, resonating with their feeling states. From this position, we can calmly explain how the rambunctious fast opening of the door hurt papa’s toe, without distilling fear or surprise in the child. With mindsight of the child’s developing brain and the mental states involved, we can give lessons that he or she can absorb without injury to his or her tender attachments.
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Barrett, L. (2018) How Emotions Are Made. Mariner Books; Reprint edition
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 1(04), 515-526.
Siegel, D. (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam; Reprint edition
Siegel, D. (2015) The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Second edition
Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13(1), 103-128.