The Echoes of the Mind (40) Mentalizing


Jīva (a living being) is called so because he sees the world. A dreamer sees many jīvas in a dream, but all of them are not real. The dreamer alone exists and he sees all. So it is with the individual and the world. There is the creed of only one Self, which is also called the creed of only one jīva. It says that the jīva is the only one who sees the whole world and the jīvas therein. ~ Indian guru Ramana Maharshi (The Vedic doctrine of drishti-srishti-vada, an offshoot of Advaita Vedanta, is that the phenomenal world is a product of the mind.)

None of us has access to other minds. The only one with sure possession of a mind is oneself.

The philosophic perspective that the only mind that exists is one’s own is termed solipsism. Logically overcoming solipsism involves solving the problem of other minds, which is intractable. Yet getting past the puzzle of solipsism proves no problem, despite being irrefutable: everyone simply disbelieves it.

As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. The fact that I cannot believe something does not prove that it is false, but it does prove that I am insincere and frivolous if I pretend to believe it. ~ English philosopher Bertrand Russell

Inferences about the mental states of other people – mentalizing – is the locus of social thought and behavior. Having only indirect information – communications and other behaviors – requires a leap from the observable to the imaginable: a chasm crossed so routinely that people often seem unaware that any bridge has been traversed.

Once formed, the ability to think about other minds is so proficient that other minds appear almost everywhere that people look, from pets that become loving and considerate, to technological gadgets that become obstinate and vindictive, to gods that have goals and plans for one’s life. If reasoning about other minds is a problem, it resembles an addiction more than a conundrum. ~ American psychologists Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz

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Human nature abhors a lack of predictability and absence of meaning. ~ American psychologist Thomas Gilovich

Mind perception aims to get a handle on a body of attention, with the aspiration of lessening uncertainty about it. The first steps in currying favor, wheedling a deal, or bringing something to heel, is sensing what it wants and how it will react.

As our environment is often a social one, we seek to understand and predict the behaviors of others. Mentalizing is the basic tool to do so.

Mind perception is critical to the relational capacities of empathy, compassion, trust, cooperation, and strategic interaction. ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz

Interpreting facial expressions, inferring intentions, and detecting deception are all accomplished by projecting mental states. Mentalizing is how interpersonal relations are managed.

Communication inherently involves getting information from one person’s head to that of another to achieve shared understanding, a task that at least implicitly requires considering another person’s desires, beliefs, intentions, and knowledge. ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz

The metaphysical language of the mind provides satisfactory answers to explain the self-propulsions of others, which is why people are so readily inclined to explain others in terms of underlying mental states. Doing otherwise is practically impossible.

To try to describe people as nothing more than bags of meat with behaviors, B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists disavowed all discussion of unobservable mental states. They ultimately failed, as they never could come up with an alternative language that made meaningful sense.

People explain behavior, at least in part, on intent. Determining whether an act was accidental or intentional is an important component of apportioning responsibility and blame. Intent is an essential ingredient in criminal courts worldwide.

We are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre

Beyond attributing responsibility to others, reducing the extent to which people believe that they control their own behaviors diminishes their sense of personal responsibility. Undermining belief in “free will” weakens morality.

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment. Exposure to such deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions. ~ American psychologists Kathleen Vohs & Jonathan Schooler