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Reading, Writing and "Theory of Mind"

I ran across the Theory of Mind concept somewhere in my dozing off to sleep, random, reading on my phone. Most nights I play a game of chess, but some nights I'll read an article or two on topics I'm interested in, like "Why the hell is my ear ringing?" or "Why do cats knead blankets?" and other mysterious phenomena.

But the Theory of Mind concept seemed to have a definite connection with reading and writing, so I wanted to research it more. To enlighten you, as I needed enlightening, on how Theory of Mind can enhance both reader and writing acumen, I will tell you what I've learned.

Theory of Mind (ToM) , essentially and in layman's terms, helps us become tolerant and empathic people and not all a bunch of narcissists. We can understand and come to terms with other people not thinking exactly as we, ourselves, do. We begin developing ToM concepts as toddlers. Role playing, like pretending to be a teacher or firefighter, helps us understand that people have different roles and concerns, and challenges us as children to explore those feelings and situations other people face.

My daughter used to like to be the teacher. She'd sit down kids at nursery school in rows of chairs and tell them how she expected them to behave and what to do while they were in her school, teacher to student. She mimicked many of her own teachers' behaviors and words. But she soon encountered a dilemma - her students had free will. When they got tired of her "teaching", they'd get up to go find something else to do or argue that they didn't want to do what she said. Ah, the perpetual teaching conundrum: How to get your student's to learn stuff.

But while she was experiencing, firsthand, those difficulties of ‘teaching’, more importantly she was learning that not everyone wanted to play what or how she wanted to play. The childrens’ behaviors are related to what they wanted or desired to do. Initially, they want to play. And maybe the idea of organized play was appealing. Sounds fun, right? So the children fall in line.

Later, when the play becomes tedious, or other self-interests are not being met (remember these are very young children), they change course. My daughter’s intentions were now being met head on with conflicting intentions of the other children.

But the amazing thing - and how this gets to the important function of reading and writing - is, that all the children were experiencing each other's mental state. They experienced my daughter's mental state of wanting to organize game play. She experienced theirs in playing along, even if briefly. Then when she loses their attention, she experiences a new mental state. And again they, too, probably already torn about defecting from their ‘classroom’, experience her mental state when she begs them to stay.

It is through experiencing such mental states, not only our own but those of others, that we develop ToM.

As readers, we are allowed to experience with unhampered intimacy the mental states of characters in a book. Our internalization is essentially a mimicking of a character's mental state, thus providing a better opportunity to understand and connect with the character.

So, you may ask, "What are you telling us here?"

In a nutshell, reading enlightens our understanding of others. We become more tolerant, empathetic, patient, and kind. We develop a greater capacity to be giving and thoughtful. We become more caring and mindful about the plights of others.

Likewise, as writers, we strive to develop characters with whom our readers can relate empathetically, a way to create ToM. The intentionality of the characters we create builds the bridge which further develops ToM in our readers, in turn connecting our readers more deeply to our writing.


Image 1: Pixabay License | Free for commercial use | No attribution required

A big thanks to my long-time friend and genius wordsmith, Kevin Smith, for his time and contributions to this piece.

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