Part One On Communication: Careful! You May NOT Be Able to Read My Mind After All!

by | May 28, 2010

In this first blog on a series on Communication Dr. Wall looks at the current research about how we can read (or not!) each other’s minds.

He probably lets his mind wander just a tad too much.

He thinks that I think that he’s a ______(fill in the blank, such as failure) and I don’t think that.

A frequent comment in marital therapy

Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain. I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.*

Jeremiah 45:3

A recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (March 31, 2010) explained the current brain research that is looking at “mental states” and how we can predict, pretty accurately it seems, what someone else is thinking. Literature scholars are taking this one step further and asking how many layers of complexity we can comprehend using brain scans of people reading various literature passages. A common example from our popular culture was given to illustrate the point:

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

The article goes on to say that modern literature authors frequently use narrative technique to bring the reader into the minds of the various characters, and that most of us can follow these “mental states” for three levels before getting confused.

Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

You might be able to guess that all of this would interest a marital therapist like myself. It’s not uncommon for a wife to tell me what her mother-in-law was thinking and what her mother-in-law’s motives were and now the wife in my office is explaining to me her hurt and the husband then says that he knows his mother better than his wife and that his mother’s motives weren’t negative at all and that his wife shouldn’t feel hurt and then both of them look to me to be the arbiter of what someone else was thinking when I’ve never even met that other person and now they want my opinion on the motives of the mother-in-law! Whoa!  Slow down.

About the time I read this NYT article I came across the passage in Jeremiah quoted above that predates Virginia Woolf by 2500 years and the NYT article by 2600 years.

I dare you to look this passage up (here or it’s included at the end of this blog today) and try to figure out who is saying what to whom. It’s a bit confusing. I’ve lost track of how many layers of complexity there are. The passage is in the book of Jeremiah, which was written by the Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah, who dictated it to his assistant, Baruch. The verse above at the beginning of this blog is a direct quote from God, who tells Jeremiah what Baruch is saying. So Baruch is writing words that Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch is saying. And now you are reading these words that I said God said to Jeremiah what Baruch said and then Baruch wrote them all down so you and I could benefit from the worries of Baruch, reported third or forth or fifth hand.

Then, as if this isn’t confusing enough, God goes on to tell Jeremiah to give a message from God to Baruch of what God is thinking about what Baruch is saying and thinking. God tells Jeremiah what that message is. Presumably, Jeremiah obeys God and tells Baruch that message. What we don’t know is if Jeremiah told Baruch that message so that Baruch could write it down and then he told Baruch that message or if he told Baruch that message and then Baruch wrote it down later. Regardless of the order, Baruch wrote down what Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch said and then God gave his opinion of what Baruch said to Jeremiah who was to tell Baruch God’s message of what God said about what Baruch said.

I’m making this more confusing than it is for a reason, so hang in here with me. I believe that the Bible is true and that God really did read Baruch’s mind accurately, whether Baruch said these words to himself, out loud to his wife or directly to Jeremiah or in a prayer to God. We really don’t know to whom Baruch said these words. Baruch wrote them in Hebrew around 600 BC and they were written down by scribes over the years, time and time again and then around 1973 some English scholars translated these ancient Masoretic Hebrew texts into English from some modern day copies of the ancient (around 1000 years old by this time) scrolls. And some printer prints it and a machine puts it all together and it’s boxed and shipped and unloaded and put on a shelf in a retail store by a number of different people and I buy the Bible 24 years ago this month and it’s sitting here by my side on my chair and hassock and I type it into Microsoft Word in my Apple MacBook and soon I’ll use my Apple Time Machine wireless router that will send the message to Mediacom’s RCA modem which, through an intricate cable network will send the message to WordPress’ computer servers in the San Francisco Bay area where it’ll be downloaded to my blog and then from there it will travel through the internet all over the world, but, specifically today and right now, you will look at it on your computer after it’s gone in reverse through the same process. And, I assume, that in the translation and the myriad changes that have gone on to the message, that you will be able to cogently understand the message of what God was saying to Jeremiah of what God said Baruch said and Jeremiah told this message to Baruch of what God said Baruch said and then Baruch wrote it down so that millennia latter you could read it and comprehend it.

And I even skipped many layers of human interaction and involvement and dependency in what it took to get all of these different layers together. It’s not a measly 6 layers. It’s thousands upon thousands: Just to get this bible by my lap we have the lumber man who cut down the tree from which the paper was made and the hundreds of inventions that were needed to put a chainsaw together, let alone a semi truck or a printing machine or the ink that was invented and manufactured and shipped or the box it was all stored in or the graphic artist that put the final flourishes on the cover of the bible or the typesetter that laid out the text or the lady that served the truck driver coffee in Nebraska as he drove across the country and the farmer that harvested the coffee beans in South America. And this is not even mentioning all the people involved across the world that were involved in the invention, production, transportation and sales of the chair and hassock I’m sitting on as I write this on a computer that took hundreds of inventions with collaboration and networking and tears and countless people from unnamed countries to develop and perfect or to credit the scientists that invented the medicine that I take every day that if I didn’t take I’d be dead by now and wouldn’t have these thoughts that I am actually conveying so that you can somehow, miraculously, comprehend and read my mind which you are reading today, but I wrote it the day before and thought about it for a long while before that.

Now one of the major points of the NYT’s article above is that our ability as humans to understand different layers of complexity in human communication is an evolutionary process, which I find a complete package of crazy nonsense.If you think about it, communication between people is a pretty amazing thing.How could we have evolved from a natural system with only one degree of communication (like from one fly to another) to this elaborate system of interlocking and interplaying mechanisms so we could comprehend the thoughts and feelings of a scared scribe 2600 years ago?Take any other animal you want.For example a cow is just a cow.It has no feelings to convey.There is only one degree of separation in communication between one cow and another cow at best and probably no degrees of separation from a cow to us.There is no memory and certainly no history.Cows don’t collaborate or read each other’s minds or contemplate each other’s mental states.They don’t invent anything or have libraries.The cow doesn’t covey anything to us, nor we to the cow, nor to each other, but with us and between us we have myriads and myriads of connections over great distances and different systems and companies and entities and over unimaginable epochs and even then the communication can be sent, understood and comprehended.How this “evolved” and is all just chance and has absolutely no meaning at all and then you even have the gall to ask me to believe it (!) is a complete collection of fantastical mythology.

All this to make this little point: While God might know what Baruch said and thought and felt, and was able to convey that to us through Baruch’s message from Jeremiah, you don’t know what your spouse thinks and feels unless you ask or he tells you. You will really get into a mess if you tell your spouse what she thinks and she tells you she doesn’t think that and then you say that she indeed did think that. Now God knows what Baruch said and thought and felt, but you are NOT God and you DO NOT know what your spouse thinks and feels. You have a hunch. You can test your hunch by asking your spouse if that is what he meant. That would be fine. But if you ask, you need to be prepared to believe it. What a complete waste of time for your spouse to tell you what he is thinking or feeling and then you tell him he’s not thinking and feeling that and then he says yes he is and then you argue about what you said he said and he argues that that is not what he meant and you say yes you did.

Folks, we’ve only got 2 degrees here.We should be able to get this.We’re not separated by centuries and cultures and languages and races and geography and technology and mediums.She’s standing right there.She just told you what she said and felt.STOP.LISTEN.SLOW DOWN.You should be able to get this.

I thought you meant this.

No, I meant that. I could see how you could think I thought this, but, no, I meant that.

Oh. Okay. Man, that freaked me out, because I thought you thought this. What a relief.

Yeah, sorry. No, I meant that. It would really be creepy if I meant this.

Yeah, no kidding.I’m glad you meant that.

Clarity.

Clearing the air.

Checking in.

Let’s leave the mind reading to God.

*The full passage from Jeremiah 45 is as follows (from the NIV and the website: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=jer%2045&version=NIV ): This is what Jeremiah the prophet told Baruch son of Neriah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, after Baruch had written on a scroll the words Jeremiah was then dictating: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ “

The LORD said, “Say this to him: ‘This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’ “

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.

Related Posts