Originally published by the Washington Independent Review of Books on March 6, 2014.
by Amanda Wicks
Sure you can read your partner’s mind? That confidence may be quite misleading and could even cause an international incident.
The ability to read minds has often seemed the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Yet, as Nicholas Epley, John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago, sets out to explain in Mindwise, the human brain comes wired for just such activity. While mind-reading of the scientific sort may not reach the level of superpower, Epley’s own research — and the wealth of additional scientific research he incorporates into the book — reveals how the human brain goes to great lengths in order to unconsciously and seamlessly interpret a range of physiological and psychological cues that seem to help people understand one another.
That ‘seem to’ serves as Epley’s central focus. He argues that even though the brain’s methods of interpretation function well from a biological standpoint and serve a necessary sociological purpose, they can also make mistakes. As Epley explains, “Others’ minds are not open books, but this doesn’t deter us from trying to read them anyway. The tools at our intuitive disposal…are simplifying heuristics that give imperfect insight into the minds of others. The mistakes they lead to do not render them useless: each provides some accurate insight. But these mistakes are also not accidental: each creates predictable errors that keeps us from perfect understanding.”
At best, misunderstandings produce annoyance and frustration — think a lover’s spat or a disagreement with a co-worker — but at their worst, misunderstandings can lead to international incidents involving world leaders. What Mindwise does, then, is explain how these errors occur and provide readers with myriad ways to recognize and therefore lessen their occurrence in the future.
Divided into four parts, Mindwise initially concentrates on explaining both how the brain’s “sixth sense” works to understand others’ minds and the confidence such understanding engenders. The problem lies, Epley argues, in people’s mistaken confidence in their ability to comprehend another’s thoughts or emotions. While his claim seems relatively straightforward in terms of strangers or people one interacts with less often, Epley also includes loved ones and familiar acquaintances in his analysis. People display a great deal of confidence in their ability to grasp their spouse’s or co-worker’s thoughts and emotions, but time and again that confidence tends to be misplaced. Recognizing one’s overconfidence becomes key to better grasping the limits of interpreting other’s minds.
Parts 2 and 3 present the numerous mistakes people make in attempting to understand others, which Epley divides into categories of “engagement” and “inference.” In Part 2, “Does it Have a Mind?” he discusses the problems caused by dehumanizing people and anthropomorphizing animals and objects. Part 3, “What State is Another Mind In,” covers the “strategies” humans use to decipher other people, including stereotyping and using their own minds as models. As interesting and informative as Part 2 ultimately is, it seems like a digression from the book’s overall scope. Epley’s examination of why people belittle each other and elevate things feels oversimplified and out of place in a study otherwise focused on comprehending others’ thoughts and feelings. As a result, it stands awkwardly between what would have been a smooth and pertinent transition between Parts 1 and 3.
Although Epley’s focus remains on the relationship between people and their endeavors to better understand one another, he also examines how well people seem to know — or not know — their own minds. He dedicates a portion of Mindwise to discussing how disparate thought and behavior can be from one another. It may seem strange to posit that people do not know the reasons behind their own behavior but, as Epley aptly demonstrates, the gap between thought (intent) and behavior (action) remains quite large. Epley periodically offers brief tests for readers, such as predicting how long it will take to complete a difficult task or measuring their reaction to a series of terms, all of which serve to clarify his claims and involve readers to a greater degree. These entertaining moments elucidate the brain’s function in a way that mere explanation would not.
Epley employs a conversational tone, which aids him in explaining more difficult cerebral matters. Part 1, “(Mis)reading Minds,” contains the book’s most scientific writing, wherein Epley explains the various sections of the brain involved in social life, but he handles the subject matter well. What could have been jargon-heavy ends up being immensely readable. At times, when undertaking a lengthier description of a particular experiment, he struggles to convey the step-by-step procedure, but apart from these moments, his writing is not only clear but enjoyable as well.
Mindwise follows in the footsteps of other studies that bridge cognitive science and psychology, such as Stumbling on Happiness and Nudge, in order to elucidate human behavior and — hopefully — improve it. A far cry from the traditional self-help book, these works do offer a kind of life improvement, though one based heavily in science and with sociological implications rather than strictly personal ones. Mindwise adds to these worthy conversations with a fascinating look at how people understand one another, the obstacles to that understanding, and the ways in which they can hone their natural mind-reading ability. Though it may not be the kind of mind-reading found in science fiction, Mindwise gives readers the tools to get one step closer to better grasping the minds around them.