Playing With our Theory of Mind

9 February 2021. Updated 10 February 2021.

by Sinéad Murphy

In an article on February 4th, Unherd’s Freddie Sayers reported on his attendance at an international conference that was held over three days during the previous week. Running under the title ‘Covid Community Action Summit,’ it was a forum for those interested in pursuing what is called ‘Zero Covid’.

Sayers was taken aback at the conference’s emphasis on communication strategies; it is as if they are planning a military campaign, he wrote, and this conference was their war room.

In illustration, Sayers quoted Tomás Ryan, an Irish neuroscientist employed by Trinity College Dublin. Ryan is a co-founder of Ireland’s ‘Independent Scientific Advocacy Group’, which aims to persuade the Irish Government to adopt a Zero Covid policy. Reflecting on the limited success so far of the Zero Covid campaign, Ryan told the conference: “You have to be playing with the theory of mind of your audience.”

This idea – that our “theory of mind” is to be “played with” – struck me as it might strike many who live with someone diagnosed with autism; a seminal experiment conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen over 30 years ago established that those diagnosed with autism lack a “theory of mind”.

For some time now, I have been suspicious of the extent to which this lack of a “theory of mind” is really disabling. In fact, I have begun to wonder whether it is having a theory of mind that is the bigger problem. And then, out of the blue, I find myself reading that one of the would-be architects of Ireland’s Zero Covid campaign has urged for more “playing with” our “theory of mind”.

So, what is it to have a “theory of mind”?

It is to interpret other people, including directly in interaction with them, by attributing to them certain expectations, beliefs, moods, intentions, which are presumed to shape their experience of the world and which provide a framework for understanding and predicting their behaviour.

For example, when a new person joins our team, we commonly interpret her first-day quietness as a function of her state of mind: her lack of confidence in her new environment, her fear of making a mistake. We overlay her immediate physical behaviour with our theory of how her mind is working. Her reluctance to speak, and her quiet tones when she does speak, are really her lack of confidence, we judge.

As Baron-Cohen discovered, people with autism are unable to do this, or, at least, markedly less able to do it. If a new person arrives and is quiet, those with autism interact with the quietness just as it is, taking the new person’s physical manifestations at face value and not placing them within a theoretical framework. For this reason, people with autism neither understand nor interact with other people in a normal way.

But there is more. Although our “theory of mind” is almost exclusively discussed in relation to our interpreting and interacting with others, there is no reason for it not also to apply to our interpreting and interacting with ourselves. Insofar as we understand ourselves as having motivations, hopes, intentions, beliefs, a “theory of mind” is something we use to model ourselves as well as to model others.

When we snap suddenly at a throwaway remark, we often subsume this physical action under a theory about our state of mind – I am tired, I have anxiety, I am low on caffeine… When we do this, we are turning our “theory of mind” on ourselves, second-guessing our physical behaviours with a theoretical account of what is really going on.

And those diagnosed with autism typically do not do this either. If they snap at you, they do not interpret this action as a symptom of some mental state, some “real story” behind the behaviour. They just are their irritability, their frustration, their excitement and their joy, which, because not overlain with dispassionate theory, are acted out in ways that can be distressingly extreme or enviably fulsome or anything in-between.

It is because of their relative lack of a “theory of mind” that we often describe those with autism as prone to taking things literally. The description implies a negative judgement, because we are used to ascribing much greater significance to theories of what is in minds than to whatever is enacted, tangibly and immediately, by bodies. So much so that it now comes naturally to us to interact with and interpret other people and ourselves according to theoretical models, and to identify those for whom significance lies only or mostly in our physical being – our movements, our tone of voice, our facial expressions – as disabled and in need of support.

But the problem is this: though we are accustomed to assuming that theories are richer and more nuanced than any merely physical being-in-the-world, in fact theories are often rather blunt instruments, generic, limited, their taxonomies crass and unyielding.

(The theoretical modelling of Neil Ferguson has this year been shown to be disastrously unsophisticated when compared with the subtle interpretations of actual physical developments on the ground as recommended by Sunetra Gupta and others.)

When we interpret and interact with other people and ourselves according to a “theory of mind”, we often reduce other people and ourselves to a set of fairly rigid and limited theoretical categories. What a variety of physical behaviours – from quietness to talkativeness, from submissiveness to aggression – I have heard lazily summarised as “lack of confidence”.

Having a “theory of mind” certainly generates a kind of understanding of ourselves and others that is highly valued in our society. But there is a real question as to whether it also renders uniform our interactions with ourselves and others, the native vibrancy of our physical behaviours consigned to the status of mere raw material.

And now we see that this creep to uniformity may not be the worst of it. For, as Tomás Ryan openly admitted at the Zero Covid conference, our “theory of mind” is vulnerable to being “played with”.

As the theoretical categories with which we understand ourselves and others are, more and more, borrowed from the life sciences and the management sciences – She’s just a narcissist; I’m being obsessive; He’s totally alpha; I’m a team-player – and as those life sciences and management sciences are, more and more, indebted to corporations and governments for funding for their research, the categories that go to make up our “theory of mind” grow eminently susceptible to being refreshed, updated… even reset, by the sophisticated marketing techniques of major political and business interests.

This year, we have been drastically reset – from the inside out – to interpret and interact with other people as if they are aggressors – murderers even – as if their behaviour stems from a barbaric carelessness. The spontaneity of long-established physical gestures – even the handshake – has been reframed by new theoretical concepts effortlessly implanted in our “theory of mind” by governments’ behaviour and health advisers and their media.

And our understanding of ourselves has been hacked into too, theoretical concepts lifted from the sciences of virology and epidemiology refashioning our interpretation of our own self as an unseen, unfelt, but nonetheless real, threat. Don’t Kill Granny and Act Like You’ve Got It: two Government campaigns that have implanted in us an entirely theoretical murderous infectiousness that has not been the less powerful for being totally at odds with our feeling, physically, just fine.

As Ryan remarked, it is only a matter of playing around with our “theory of mind” a little more for other people and ourselves to be interpreted and interacted with as so potentially deadly that we grow ripe for support for a Zero Covid policy.

Meanwhile, those in our midst who lack a “theory of mind” now stand out from the crowd even more than they did before, their unwitting resistance to the theoretical reframing of our physical lives growing ever more unwieldy and inappropriate. What is to be done with their so-inconvenient immunity against being “played with”?

The DO NOT ATTEMPT RESUSCITATION orders that have been applied this year to whole cohorts of working-aged autistic people – illegally, without consultation – do not bode well…

We should learn from their example while we can. If a person stands near us at the bus stop, we should take the warmth of their human presence as just that, and not interpret and interact with it as an infectious aggressiveness. And if we leap out of bed ready to face the day, we should take our appetite for life as just that, and not second-guess it as a mere front for lurking and lethal threat.

It is time to shuffle off our “theory of mind”, at least somewhat. It is time to take things more literally.

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Philosophy Lecturer at Newcastle University.

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