Whose mind are you reading?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
We believe that we can describe what is happening in another person’s mind by analyzing their behavior, expressions, actions, and words. Although we do not have direct access to their thoughts, desires, or intentions, we feel confident that we can create a complete description of their mind that accurately explains what we observe.
From where do we derive the knowledge and understanding that enables us to create such explanations? It’s clear that we draw from the one mind that we can truly comprehend – our own. We are familiar with the quasi-causal mental process of linking intentions to actions, as it occurs within our own minds, and we apply that understanding to interpret the actions of others. We make assumptions about the thoughts and beliefs of others by extrapolating from what goes on in our own minds, such as “They said that because they want this” or “They did this because they believe it will achieve that”.
There are two perspectives on how we attribute thoughts and intentions to others: the theory of mind on the one hand and projection on the other. The theory of mind is considered an important and rational process that enables us to make sense of the world around us by providing us with insight into the thoughts and behaviors of others. Without the ability to “see into” the minds of others, their actions and words would be completely puzzling, and our own actions could result in continuous failure as we would be unable to predict how others would react to what we do or say. This capacity is developed during early childhood as we learn which of our actions are pleasing or displeasing to those on whom we depend.
An alternative explanation for how we attribute mental states to others is the theory of projection. Our brain recognizes two realms: one that is internal to ourselves and another that appears to be external. However, we sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between these two realms. The same narratives we use to describe what is happening internally are applied to the external realm. We perceive processes such as belief, intention, desire, planning, prediction, and emotion as if they are happening inside others, as well as non-people entities, such as infants, animals, and even inanimate objects. This is a result of projecting our internal mental processes onto others.
While theory of mind is seen as a useful ability that is required for survival, the theory of projection is not always viewed as functional. It could be explained through evolutionary biology or psychological explanations. For example, it could have been the mechanism used to develop theory-of-mind abilities or it could have led to inter-human empathy, where groups of early humans lacking empathy for members of their own group failed to survive. However, projection also has a darker side, as it can involve delusions or projecting unwarranted emotions onto others. In this way, theory of mind is seen as all positive and useful, while projection is more complex, having both positive and negative aspects, and is sometimes related to the darker aspects of the psyche.
Projecting emotions onto others can also be a reflection of our own inner struggles. Both storytellers and filmmakers understand that we often see ourselves in the characters on the screen. The stories we watch can help us process and work through personal issues we may have forgotten, pushed aside, or been unwilling to confront. These can be traumatic memories or darker aspects of our personality that we find difficult to confront, but by projecting them onto others, we can deal with them at a safe distance, as if they are not happening to us, but to others.
When we have negative feelings towards someone, it may be because they remind us of something about ourselves that we dislike. When people we don’t like or enemies do or say things, we are quick to assume they have evil intentions. We may convince ourselves that they are trying to cause harm. In a world where there are many lies, we tend to believe the worst rumors about those we dislike and the best about those we like. While it is possible that some of our beliefs are true, it is important to consider that our negative perceptions of others may stem from our own inner conflicts and desires that our self-image cannot accept. The saying “it takes one to know one” suggests that our beliefs about those we hate may reflect what we ourselves would like to do but are unable to accept.
The ideas presented in this post are not definite truths, but they offer a possibility worth considering. Reflecting on these concepts could lead to greater self-awareness and personal growth.