Do any of you remember the 1976 track from the Kursaal Flyers?
I have been thinking about “Theory of Mind”. This is our ability to recognise the perspective of another person and to understanding that that may not share the same knowledge, thoughts and feelings as we do. For example: if we see there are two boxes, A & B, and we see a boy and a girl hide some chocolate in box A; but then the boy leaves and while he is gone the girl switches the chocolate to box B . In this situation we expect, that upon his return, the boy will believe that the chocolate in still in Box A… i.e. his perspective is not the same as that of the girl or of ourselves (the observer). There is quick explanation of Theory of Mind here.
Now, being able to “read the thoughts of other”, appreciating that they may have a different understanding of a situation to ourselves, allows us to predict their actions – and similarly, we may look at someone’s actions and infer what their understanding or beliefs about a situation may be. If John leaves his home with an umbrella, we can infer that he believes that it may rain even though we have seen a sunny forecast and that there is no cloud in the sky. So Theory of Mind does not (necessarily) deal with truth or reality… it deals with our ability to understand what feelings, thoughts or beliefs other people may be experiencing.
Tests show that children develop the ability demonstrate a grasp of Theory of Mind at about 4 years old – it is verbal reasoning; (but interestingly there have been tests that monitor emotional reactions to situations – like “surprise” – that suggest that younger children have some kind of Theory of Mind yet they will give the wrong verbal answer when asked to think about it).
Theory of Mind is beautifully explained by Professor Uta Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London here .
Theory of Mind is important in the study of Autism. It is commonly thought that people on the autistic spectrum lack empathy – yet in many cases their empathetic abilities are intact but they do lack “Theory of Mind”. This means that they are unable to understand, second by second, the viewpoints of others (i.e. their understanding, worries, objectives, aspirations etc) and so they are unable to respond appropriately to such concerns. This makes “reciprocal conversation” very difficult; they cannot infer from peoples’ reactions what others may feel or know as a conversation goes on. Further, it can mean that people with autism may not comply with social norms in conversations – failing to understand that some statements may cause offense or may be upsetting or shocking to the person they are talking to. Further, most of us are prepared to tell “white lies” to put people at ease or to avoid being offence – “how was your meal?” – “Delicious!” – yet those without Theory of Mind will not do so.
So, for most of us our Theory of Mind – our ability to “mentalize” i.e. to “mindread” what others may be thinking – is completely natural and instinctive. Yet thinking about Theory of Mind made me wonder if, in the same way that some people have an impaired ability to mentalize, then some people might have a “super” Theory of Mind ability – i.e. to be able to put together all kinds of clues from a person’s behaviours or statements and experiences so that they may automatically (without thought) become aware of exactly what feelings someone may have, what actions someone may take or even the questions that are about to ask… in the short term and even in the longer term.
Before closing I would add that if this post has attracted those with an interest in autism then there is significant research that mindfulness practice can be a real benefit to those with autism and for those caring for people with autism – both to reduce anxieties and to improve social interaction through focus and an enhanced ability to pause rather than reacting instinctively. For example: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200603100501.htm or https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5968048/