Reflection 14: Mindreading

October 28, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

We generally think of language as a matter of words, but we know it is much more than that. How we deliver an utterance is every bit as important as what we say. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and you will know what I mean. The music of language includes pitch, intonation, rhythm, pace, voicing, and other nonverbal aspects. Body language adds to the message. Our stance tells how engaged we are, our facial expressions and hand movements underscore what we say, and as always our eyes speak volumes about our attitude toward our topic, hearers, and speech occasions. Our eyes, after all, are forward extensions of our brains. The light within is the very radiance of our mental activity.


Do these factors enter conscious awareness? Not very often. We take them in as part of the message and its occasion without really paying attention to them. If we think we are receiving mixed messages from someone, then we may start looking for discord between the different channels involved in language. But generally we regard them as incidental rather than as essential clues to how we are to interpret a given utterance.


We do know that talking with someone on the telephone is very different from speaking with them face-to-face. Without seeing posture, gestures, and facial expressions, it is harder to understand what is being said, and harder to get our own side of the conversation across. “Do you know what I’m saying?” doesn’t really do much beyond make the listener feel like a dope.


Written language is even worse in that regard because it deprives us of the non-vocal sounds that are intimately bound to words on the page but simply aren’t there. Exclamation and question marks help, as do commas and periods, but they provide very rude support in helping us block out the message. Mostly we fall back on imagination to fill in the missing parts, so we read with an as if kind of attitude—as if we were witnessing someone actually saying those words. That is, we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and there’s no sure way of knowing if we are reading the situation correctly or not. As in reading poetry, we have to use every clue we are given.


This is a kind of language participation that often gives persons with autism a great deal of difficulty. They have trouble reading postures, gestures, expressions, and eyes. Which are all parts of the language occasion or situation. They hear the literal words without all the trimmings that help make it clear what is being said. So their consciousness of language is diminished to a degree. Neuroscientists say those with autism often lack a “theory of mind” that lets them identify with the mental states and intentions of others, so they can’t “read” their minds. Even though few of us are aware such signals are part of everyday language, we are taking them in on some level and our understanding acknowledges that fact. Which is a tricky part of consciousness because we register the effects of those signals without being aware of the evidence itself.


We may not know how we do it, but in many situations we are able to read minds. How do we know that we know what we think we know is going on in another person’s head? The short answer is we can’t ever know for sure. But the long answer is that many times we can trust our intuition. Without such an ability, how would we ever feel empathy for another’s condition? How could we ever be with anyone else in spirit? How could we communicate on an intimate level, and so feel connected? Consciousness must be an additive function that doesn’t settle for taking the world at face value but adds an assortment of subliminal signals into a coherent impression beyond what can be experienced directly through sensory channels. And when the signals don’t add up, we become consciously aware of dissonance or mixed messages that put us on our guard.


I suspect we learn to read other people’s intentions very early in childhood through imitation of their gestures and expressions in a spirit of play. That way we establish a kind of resonance based on a caregiver’s grasp of our level of understanding, and build on that. In short order we get good at mimicking gestures and facial expressions (for which we are rewarded with feedback such as smiles, giggles, hugs, and kisses), which leads to anticipating what others are going to say and do, as if we could read their minds. Way before our formal schooling, through playful interactions we have laid the foundation for social exchanges we will rely on every day of our lives.


Our mindreading skills stem from imagination reinforced by positive feedback. We put ourselves out there and learn from what happens. Taking the feedback to heart, we venture again. And again. These fundamental social skills are acquired by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Scientists talk about the brain as a computer performing computations based on information received from outside. But really, “information” isn’t informative in this sense because the brain doesn’t have access to the situation in which data becomes meaningful on its own. The information-processing view is laid on our brains by others, but each of us develops consciousness on the inside by making gestures in the world, receiving feedback, refining our gestures, and modifying our behavior in a kind of endless loop of experience that is self-generating and self-improving. We on the inside are always the judge of what is effective and what isn’t. Those around us have as much to learn from us as we do from them.


Consciousness is spurred by imagination and a spirit of fun. Forget information. The more merriment, the better.










5 Responses to “Reflection 14: Mindreading”

  1. Duchess said

    My eyes are forward extensions of my brain, but your print is too small!

  2. Steve Perrin said

    I tried posting the blog in 14 point type, and that did the trick. Thanks, Duchess, for drawing this to my attention. –Steve from Planet Earth

  3. sherrieh said

    Hi Steve. I’m delighted to see a blog devoted to raising consciousness! I touch on it in many of my articles on May I link to your blog so that others can read more in-depth should they wish to explore this further?

  4. Steve Perrin said

    Sherrieh, sorry it took so long for me to get back to you regarding your query. I invite you to link away. I sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness, trying to make the point that the world we see is not necessarily the world we actually live in. Our minds heavily slant and edit our awareness, so we cannot look upon the world without bias of one sort or another. I feel strongly that if people accepted responsibility for their own seeing (hearing, touching, being), then the world would be a better place for all. Thanks for asking. –Steve from Planet Earth

  5. sherrieh said

    Steve, I just want to comment on this. I believe the research shows that most children by age 2 are able to read body language. However there are those who typically have a difficult time with that. I have found that lots of people with dyslexia seem to misinterpret peoples’ intentions and body language. Something in their brain wiring gets crossed. Having said that, the researchers are finding that some people [less than 2% of the population] have face blindness and never read others at all. I believe this research has just come out in the psychological literature within the last couple of years.

    As an astrologer, people who have a significant amount of water in their charts are more intuitive and have a knowingness than others. Just some food for thought for you!

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