A defining characteristic of the human species is our advanced “Theory of Mind” which is our ability to understand and appreciate the mental states of other people. We are able to think about what other people might be thinking or feeling. According to Daniel C. Krawczyk in his book Reasoning: The Neuroscience of How We Think, having a developed Theory of Mind is a key tool necessary for proper social functioning. He summarizes the importance of Theory of Mind thusly:
The more that we can understand the characteristics of another person’s thinking, the more we will be able to predict what that individual is likely to do next. Theory of Mind underlies our ability to influence others by appealing to their needs and evoking their emotions. If we can “tug at the heart strings” of another person, we may be better able to enlist them to help us solve problems. If we can read and understand what someone wants, we will have opportunities to engage their interest and gain friendships. If we can read why someone is reacting coldly toward us, then we are likely to be more successful at diffusing conflict. Theory of Mind strongly determines our opportunities to successfully navigate our social world.
Theory of Mind is a key component of empathy, which is very important for proper social functioning. Theory of Mind “has been understood as a key component of humans’ intricate social lives, contributing to the ability to understand irony, tell and detect lies, and participate in positive social interactions.” Source.
Theory of Mind develops in humans as toddlers and is mostly developed by age 6. Having an underdeveloped Theory of Mind is problematic; it is thought that people with schizophrenia and with autism spectrum disorders lack a fully developed Theory of Mind. Source.
Interestingly, even though as adults we have Theory of Mind in our toolkit, studies have found that we aren’t all that great at using those tools. Additionally, Theory of Mind tends to degrade in older adults.
While Theory of Mind has been studied extensively in terms of child development and individuals on the autism spectrum disorder, little research has been done on how to improve Theory of Mind in adults, particularly older adults. Increased socialiation of older adults has been linked to improvements in Theory of Mind.
Another interesting study found that reading literary fiction improves our Theory of Mind. Curiously, reading popular fiction or non-fiction didn’t improve Theory of Mind performance in adults. The researchers suggest that “the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”
Thus, when we read fiction, the parts of our brain that we use to understand stories are largely the same as those we use in interacting with other individuals. That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves.
Related IFOD on the benefits of reading fiction including more on Fiction and Theory of Mind improvements.
Related IFOD on Thinking About Thinking.
I would include the personality disorders sociopathy and narcissism, notable for their lack of empathy, among the mental disorders with under or non-developed ToM.