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Mind Reading and Miscommunication

How to avoid the big communication mistake your brain makes

This post is in response to
Shaping Your Kid's Brain for Success

I’m not psychic, but I am a mind reader. So are you (apologies to any of my readers who in fact are psychics, but you probably saw that coming anyway). Mind reading is a skill that we all possess; some of us are just better than others. And guess what part of the brain is involved? (If you said “prefrontal cortex,” you read my mind).

In an earlier post I talked about the belly of the prefrontal cortex (a.k.a. ventral PFC), how it governs emotional awareness and control. In this post I’ll describe the mind reading capabilities of the upper middle PFC (a.k.a. dorsomedial PFC) and how it causes miscommunications and what you can do about it.

Mind reading is not just for psychics and magicians. Because humans are such social animals, it is often important to navigate through nuanced social interactions, and the only way to do that effectively is to read people’s minds. Formally, this is known as mentalizing.

The best example of mentalizing I can think of is the scene in The Princess Bride where the Man in Black faces off against the Sicilian (the funny looking short guy) in a battle of wits. The Sicilian begins “But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own cup or his enemies? Now a clever man would put the poison into his own cup, because he knows that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool so I can clearly not drink the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” The ability to see things from someone else’s perspective requires you to run a simulation of their thoughts, and this uses the dorsomedial PFC.

Marco Iacoboni (so much fun to say), and colleagues at UCLA conducted a very simple experiment on human interaction. They had subjects watch movie clips while in the fMRI scanner. Some clips involved people doing a task, (perhaps something like Keanu Reeves rapidly learning kung-fu). Other clips showed people interacting with each other. When subjects watched clips of people interacting, their dorsomedial PFC lit up. The subjects didn’t need to be asked to mind read—we do it automatically. The important thing is to realize is that you’re doing it automatically, whether you’re aware of it or not.

You are not born being able to mind read, or even able to see things from someone else’s point-of-view. Children first start to develop this ability at around 4 years old. A simple mind reading experiment involves the child watching a cartoon with a cat, a mouse and two boxes on the left and right of the screen. The mouse has a piece of cheese and puts it in the box on the right (presumably for safekeeping). Then the mouse leaves and goes off screen (probably to tutor disadvantaged children). While the mouse is gone, the cat takes the cheese out of the box on the right, and puts it in the box on the left (because he’s kind of a jerk). Then the mouse comes back. The question posed to the child is “Where does the mouse think the cheese is?” Of course the obvious answer is “in box on the right”, because the mouse did not see the cat move the cheese. However, when kids are under 4 years old, and do not have a theory of mind, they will say that the mouse thinks the cheese is in the box on the left. This is because they cannot conceptualize of taking a point of view of someone other than themselves; they cannot separate their mind from the mind of the mouse. Since they know where the cheese is the mouse must know as well. The ability to take the point of view of someone else is essentially mind reading.

In fact, my parenthetical statements in the above paragraph were also examples of mind reading. I was inferring something about the intentions of the cat and the mouse from their actions (e.g. the mouse wanted to safeguard his cheese, and the cat wanted to mess with him). However, what I inferred from their actions may not be correct (maybe the mouse had stolen the cheese, and was trying to hide it from the cops, and the cat got nervous and was hoping to return the evidence). And that is where a lot of miscommunications arise: Your automatic, and unconscious attempts at reading another person’s mind are not always accurate.

Importantly, our ability to mind read and make guesses about other people’s intentions are often colored by our own emotional state. This happens because the lower, emotional parts of the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system and the mind-reading part of the PFC (the dorsomedial PFC) are all interconnected. If someone did something that made you feel bad (like your friend didn’t call you when they said they would), then it’s more likely the dorsomedial PFC will infer that they just don’t care about your feelings that much. So in any close relationship, despite the fact that you know the person very well, your ability to intuit their point-of-view is affected by how you’re feeling. Or you might not be aware of exactly how they’re feeling, and they might misread what’s going on in your head. Humorously enough we assume other people are expert mind readers and know exactly what we're thinking.

If you’re having an argument with a friend or spouse and either you or they can’t seem to figure out what started it, then one or both of you probably made an error in mind reading. Like you showed up five minutes late to lunch and your friend is all upset, or you tried to compliment your girlfriend’s dress and for some reason she got offended, then someone (and usually both people) are making an error in mind-reading. And despite the fact that your brain engages in mind reading all the time, don’t just rely on your dorsomedial PFC to figure out what the other person might be thinking. The solution to most arguments is to stop trying to mind read and to stop expecting the other person to read your mind. The best way to find out what someone else’s point of view is to ask them.

If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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