Theory of mind, regained

| May 18, 2013 | 1 Comment

At some point in our childhood something happens. We acquire what is called the Theory of Mind. The Theory of Mind is the understanding that other people are in fact people, and not just actors in our lives. That like ourselves, other people have thoughts, feelings, doubts, worries, joys. It’s an enormously important point in our lives, a point necessary for feelings such as empathy and love.

Then, at some point, we lose our Theory of Mind.

Of course, we don’t lose it. It’s still there, logically. But we forget, and at some point everyone else becomes one-dimensional mass again.


Two summers ago I saw an elderly man when I was at the mall with my mom. It was early noon, and he was just sitting there in the food court, alone, eating Cinnabon and reading a section of the newspaper. The rest of the paper was scattered on the table in various stages of being read.

It made me sad to watch him. It seemed as if he had been sitting there for 50 years, except 50 years ago the food court was full of his friends. They had slowly passed until all that was left was him, his Cinnabon, and a section of the newspaper. He seemed lonely, but he must’ve felt that he was too old to do anything other than what he had done for the past 50 years. So he sat there.

It dawned on me that he had had a life before this moment. That things had happened to him in the 70-odd years that had led to this moment of our intersection, and that he must occasionally think about these things. That he was not just an actor or prop in my story. I wondered what thoughts he had that might comfort him in his loneliness. I wondered whether he considered the various roads he might have taken, whether he tried to map out how he had gotten to this place – the way I often wonder how I got to where I am. Most of all, I wondered if I would ever be him. Whether one day I would sit down and find myself in his place – not knowing how I got there.

I’ve been mulling over this realization since that summer – that for a split second I had regained my Theory of Mind. That for a split second, I understood that the old man had thoughts just like I did. That he must occasionally think about the various events that had led him to that day in the mall, much in the same way that I wonder how I got to be 22.


In the past two days my thoughts about the old man, and Theory of Mind, have come back to me in various ways: once at a retreat, and then at a poetry reading.

At the retreat we, as an ethnically and internationally diverse group, talked about perception: how we tend to think of people in single dimensions. We don’t consider the things we do not see, and we assume that what we do see the defining quality of the person. At the poetry reading we, a bunch of poets at every stage from enthusiast to master, talked about reaching people through art: how we all have something within us that wants to reach out, that just needs some urging. We can make meaningful connections with others when we realize their complexity, and really understand that they’re people too.

In both cases the same topic was brought up, but talked about in different ways. Not once was Theory of Mind mentioned, but words like complexity and dimensions and facets and experiences were used a lot. I couldn’t help thinking about that one time in the mall.

And I had another realization – that I was not the only one who had been considering the regaining of the Theory of Mind.


There are over 7 billion people in this world, all with lives as complicated as my own. Yet not a single one has had an identical experience.

But most of the time, I don’t really think about it. Most of the time, I hear my voice in my head and I know I exist and that I have thoughts. I think therefore I am. Everyone else, is everyone else.

I go on trains and I’m surrounded by people. It is a strange thought when I realize that the person sitting next to me has worries, experiences, loves, drunken stories. Thoughts – perhaps not thoughts about me, but maybe an assignment, or a love poem, or a much-missed dog at home.

Most of the time, when I look out on the crowd in a public square I see people, not persons.


I think we struggle with the Theory of Mind because of the vastness of it all.

If you realize that every single person is more than the single dimension that you see right this second – that they have countless dimensions and character traits – it’s all a bit overwhelming. If you realize that everyone has had just as many experiences as you, your interaction with each of them seems infinitely complex. It becomes difficult to interact with anyone.

It’s easy to think of people in one dimension: the blind man on the T, the heavy-set girl in the front of the class.

With your friends you may think of a few more dimensions, and certainly the amount of dimensions speaks to how close you are.

But for most people, one dimension is enough. Anything more takes up too much time and operating space, and you have things to do in very little time.

Consider that they probably think of you the same way. And think about how much more there is to you – your moods, your decisions, your doubts, your secrets – that most people never see. Think about everything you don’t see in another person’s life.

It’s hard to think of other people as complex when we’re constantly struggling with our own complexity.


Theory of Mind is nothing new. Certainly the fact that we generally see people as one dimensional is not new either. Somehow, though, we keep forgetting. I keep forgetting. But I try to keep talking about it, hoping, rather selfishly, that by telling the stories I will become more aware and have more moments of clarity. Yet in those moments of clarity, I am also aware of how many people I let slip by – how many people I never noticed or acknowledged on the T.

I’m working on it.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion

About the Author ()

An expat and perpetual wanderer, Tino studied Linguistics and Psychology in CAS. He now teaches Spanish in Detroit. Interests include: bulky journals, tattoos, Arizona black&white tea, food, C3, introspection and over-analysis.

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