Cognitive Behavioral Therapy folks consider mind-reading as one of the cognitive distortions, and it’s been puzzling for me: on one hand, understanding that another person has thoughts and feelings and trying to sense them feels like an important skill. On the other hand, I can see how this can go South real fast. Scratch that, I’ve gone there. So many times. One of my more painful memories here was me derailing a Web standards meeting with a rather harsh reply to an innocuous question. I assumed that the person asking the question had some ulterior motive — of course they wanted to just keep jerking me around and delay the progress! — and unfortunately, acted out a self-fulfilling prophecy. We made no more forward progress on this item that day. I made assumptions about what the other person was thinking and jumped to conclusions, foreclosing on much of the space of other available choices. It feels like there’s a very delicate dance of guessing what the others are thinking and acting on those guesses.
Here’s how I made sense of this tension so far. I tell myself: “In the first half of your life you’ve learned how to mind-read. In the second half, you’re learning how not to do that.”
When we’re young and still learning to socialize with others, mastering the theory of mind is crucial in becoming a functional adult: to empathize and to take the perspectives of others. Somewhere along this journey, we usually arrive at the point where we feel pretty good about this ability and assume that we can mind-read: know what other people are thinking. This discovery can be quite intoxicating. All I need to do now is get even better at reading minds! And it feels like it works: a subtle shift in posture, a voice inflection, or facial expression are good-enough clues to let me know what’s happening in that other person’s mind.
Except they aren’t. They tell me that something is happening, but the full extent of the story is inaccessible to me. All I have is a guess based on my own experience. And that guess is just as much informed by the others’ furrowed brow as by that burrito I had for lunch. Even more confusingly, what I am reading might be true: that other person is thinking something that I fear. However, that thought is a part of a large, conflicting mess of being. We are not one-threaded minds. If we believe Numenta’s research, there are thousand brains in each of us, trying to come up with viable strategies for navigating this complex world. Some of these brains are thinking beautiful, kind thoughts. Some of them aren’t. If we only let ourselves judge others only by their non-beautiful thoughts, we’d arrive at a rather bleak reality. We are much better off treating our mind-reading skills as tools for generating initial guesses, something to hold lightly.