Switching shoes

Children around 4 years of age learn that other people experience the world differently from them; if you hide something from someone else, they will not automatically know where it is just because you know. This concept is called Theory of Mind in psychology, although it is sometimes referred to as mentalizing (like the TV show!).

As with most higher cognitive processes, there are several brain areas involved in Theory of Mind. The main area though is thought to be the medial prefrontal cortex. The frontal lobe is one of the last areas to develop, still maturing when we are well in our twenties (our brains always keep changing, but stop developing in the late twenties, much later than previously expected. This also explains why teenagers engage in risky behaviour; their frontal ‘executive control’ processes haven’t fully matured yet). So, as we grow up, we learn more about how other people’s minds work, and learn how to deal with them appropriately. When someone is sad, we comfort them, when someone is happy, we often feel happy as well, and this ability becomes more nuanced as we reach adulthood.

Theory of Mind in action, sort of. Image copyright Randy Glasbergen.

Of course not everyone is equally as good at predicting what other people are thinking. It takes a lot of effort, something which not all people are capable or willing to expend. Some people’s brains are wired in a way that makes it hard for them to look at things from a different perspective. And sometimes people are just too caught up in their own minds to consider those of others.

As a writer, it is important to exercise your ability to walk in another’s shoes on a regular basis. After all, if you’re going to put yourself in the mindset of people who only live in your head, you need to have a good idea of what is going on in there.

Sometimes it helps to put ourselves in another’s shoes, either metaphorically or literally; some shoes turn out to be surprisingly uncomfortable.

A commonly proffered advice to writers is to sit in a cafe and to watch people. Just watch, and think about what’s going on in their heads, in their lives. This is what Theory of Mind is all about, and you don’t need to be a psychologist to do it. As long as you recognise what ideas are coming from your mind, and so what biases you might have when interpreting the behaviour of others, then you can account for those and leave them out of your mentalizing as well as out of your writing.

Being able to come up with stories for people who are just passing by is a great stepping stone towards stories about people who you will never be able to meet in real life, and I believe it also makes you a more caring, social person in the process. So even though writers are commonly thought of as hermits, their Theory of Mind actually makes them more sensitive towards social cues and therefore very empathic individuals (when they want to be, or are not too distracted by the people in their heads;-) and yes I am including myself in this group).

I’m not sure this post is much help to anyone, because I can’t watch people’s behaviours as they’re reading it to infer what they’re thinking (also it’s kind of late and I should really be in bed), so if you would like more of this kinds of posts, or disagree with me completely, please comment and let me know.

Night night, internet.


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