To optimally function in the world, one must be adept at inferring the mental states of other people. We need to understand they are different from our own. This cognitive mechanism is known as the Theory of Mind (ToM). It allows us to figure out what’s going on in someone else’s head. Their emotions, intentions, fears, beliefs, expectations, thus understanding how this affects their behaviors and actions.
ToM is the basis for a child’s becoming socialized and adept at navigating interpersonal relationships.
People on the spectrum (autism/Aspergers) and those suffering from mental illness (BPD/schizophrenia) have an impaired theory of mind. Their capacity to understand the mental states of others is very narrow and limited. They tend to suffer from mind-blindness. Difficulty seeing people/situations from any other perspective than their own.
We are not born with this ability. We learn this skill through interaction with our early home environment. And it develops incrementally from infancy through childhood, adolescence into adulthood. Furthermore, the Theory of Mind exists on a continuum as opposed to a distinct presence or absence of it.
However, in a dysfunctional family, the normal rules of social interaction don’t apply. Every interplay is a warped power struggle or a covert manipulative subterfuge. In this kind of atmosphere, there is no way for a child to develop a robust TOM.
Theory Of Mind (TOM)
In 1978 David Premack and Guy Woodruff coined the term Theory of Mind (TOM) – the cognitive capability of understanding another’s mind.
The brain region most involved in ToM is the temporoparietal junction(TPJ ). The TPJ plays a critical role in the social process that requires self-other distinction. However, the process of attributing beliefs and intentions to others is attributed to the right TPJ (rTPJ).
Other areas include the medial parietal/posterior cingulate cortex (MP/PCC), and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC). These medial mentalizing regions play a somewhat general role in social cognition, including emotion processing and introspection.
How TOM Develops
According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, attention is one of the first underlying precursors to the development of a fully-fledged theory of mind.
Now, attention does not just involve, looking at something/someone. It entails joint attention – when two people direct their attention towards the same thing of interest. The second core component is that of intentionality. To understand that people’s behavior is motivated by their own unique beliefs and desires.
Finally, imitating others is the third building block of the theory of mind. Seeing that something is important the child imitates the caregiver’s actions.
For example, when a mother points something to a child and he looks towards that object. This mutual focusing means the child is able to process his mother’s mental state – recognizing that this object is something that the mother thinks is of interest.
Theory of Mind Is Different From Empathy
Though, the theory of mind is very similar to empathy there is one huge difference.
Cognitive perspective-taking defines the Theory of Mind while empathy is an emotional perspective-taking. Being able to think about how others feel is not the same as feeling how they feel.
Empathy is the ability to perceive, understand, and react to other people’s emotions appropriately. Viscerally one feels the other person’s feelings which helps us respond with compassion and caring.
On the other hand, ToM, is cognitively intuiting another person’s mental states such as knowledge, desires, emotions, and belief without feeling them ourselves. This is why ToM is also known as cognitive empathy. We know how they feel but can choose how to respond. With sensitivity or unconcern.
ToM includes the ability to understand that the representations generated in one’s mind do not necessarily reflect the real world and that other people may hold different representations. Empathy—the ability to understand another person’s perceptions on a deep level without reference to one’s own perceptions—may be a culminating feature of ToM development
Neurologically, empathy and ToM share some similar brain areas. However, empathy also involves the anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and most importantly the amygdala.
How We Read Each Other’s Minds | Rebecca Saxe
Earlier researchers believed that ToM developed when a child was around 4 or 5 years old. However, recent studies show that the foundational building blocks of ToM begin developing in the first few months of an infant’s life.
Attuned caregiving is the precursor for the effective development of the theory of mind. This kind of mind-minded parenting recognizes the independent thoughts and feelings of children. Parents assume their children’s behavior is meaningful, and tune into their children’s emotions, desires, and interests.
Mind-minded caregivers interact with sensitivity. They offer a stimulating environment/toys/play, respect a child’s autonomy and maintain secure attachment bonds with their child.
Notwithstanding, the quality of our earliest interactions plays a crucial role in how we view ourselves and the world around us. When a caregiver responds to a child’s behavior with attunement, the child also responds similarly with understanding.
Simply put, when we cry and our parent/s respond with loving attention, we slowly, are able to internalize that our behavior causes our caregivers to respond. These early affective exchanges subsequently facilitate the more complex awareness of others.
The opposite of mind-minded caregiving is a mind-blind caregiver. They are un-attuned to the child’s signals, either on purpose or due to a lack of awareness.
Though they may see a child as different and separate they fail to respect the autonomy of the child. Or they see the child as just an extension of them. There to serve and appease them. Failure to do so incurs the wrath and rejection of the parent.
Growing up with this kind of mind-blind parents one is forced to repress the cognitive dissonance and become mind-blind to survive. Either you see people from a self-centered point of view and become narcissistic/psychopathic. Or you see people through a self-erasing point of view and become codependent/schizoid/people-pleaser.
A point to note is that people on the dark triad spectrum – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy usually have a well-developed TOM. They are good at reading certain things about people and like all predators they can see the weaknesses in others. However, they lack affective empathy, to feel the feelings/pain of other people. So they don’t care if they hurt the other person.
Childhood Trauma Affects Theory Of Mind Development
Childhood trauma disrupts the normal developmental trajectory and alters our mentalizing abilities. It impairs cognitive perspective-taking, reduces the ability to recognize and correctly interpret others’ emotions.
How can we form an accurate assessment of others when our assessment of ourselves is skewed? We internalize our abusive parents’/family’s attitudes/actions which become our core beliefs. From this aberrant state, we operate in the world. Living the lies and half-truths we were forced to believe in order to survive. This jeopardizes our social interaction later in life.
An impaired ToM leads to poor social skills and failure to effectively interact. This invariably results in being ostracized, bullied, and further abused. Thus leading to mental illnesses, like depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addiction.
Self-Compassion and Healing
Those of us who were traumatized, survived by shutting down our cognitive and emotional faculties. We annihilated parts of ourselves and blinded ourselves to the toxicity of others. This did not allow us to develop an accurate theory of mind. We couldn’t see where we ended and others began. Or that people close to us – our friends and family didn’t have the best intentions towards us.
The slow process of healing involves learning to make the distinction between self and others. It means overcoming the years of indoctrination that my feelings, needs don’t matter. That I have to put other people first, regardless of what I want or how I feel.
It means learning to have self-compassion first before having other compassion. Only, when I can see and honor myself can I truly see and validate another.