Theory of mind

Theory of mind is the idea that other people have their own thoughts, intentions, emotions, and desires. Theory of mind is something that people possess at an individual level: if you believe that others have their “own” minds, you subscribe to the theory of mind.

In Lingthusiasm’s episode on theory of mind, the hosts describe that a belief in the theory of mind was necessary for the development of language. Language – an inherently social system – is thought to have come about to increase social ties with other members of your group, with gossip being theorized to be one of the central modes of communicating. When people gossip, there’s an implied belief that those who are being gossiped about have their own intentions, beliefs, thoughts, and desires.

This episode spurred me to dig up a video that I saw on Reddit years ago about a psychology experiment that demonstrated that orangutans possess theory of mind as well. There are actually quite a few animals that have this.

It also made me think about Brene Brown’s concept of the stories we make up about how others are feeling or what others think. When we feel vulnerable, ashamed, anxious, or unsure, those stories tend to make giant leaps in assumptions and we end up spiraling and assuming the worst. Without open and trusting communication, those stories get cemented in our brains as fact, even though they’re literally emotionally-charged stories we fabricated to make sense of a situation. Theory of mind, baby.