"Picture two friends, Sally and Anne, having a drink in a bar. While Sally is in the bathroom, Anne decides to buy another round, but she notices that Sally has left her phone on the table. So no one can steal it, Anne puts the phone into her friend's bag before heading to the bar. When Sally returns, where will she expect to see her phone?
If you said she would look at the table where she left it, congratulations! You have a theory of mind – the ability to understand that another person may have knowledge, ideas and beliefs that differ from your own, or from reality.
If that sounds like nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps it's because we usually take it for granted. Yet it involves doing something no other animal can do to the same extent." (Kirsten Weir, writing in New Scientist)Can we ever know someone else's intentions, or truly understand their thinking?
The answer, I believe, is both "yes" and "no." As Weir points out in the New Scientist article, we humans and certain other primates are gifted with a singular ability to understand the thought processes of other individuals. We see, or even anticipate, the behavior of others, imagine ourselves in that same position, and then reach conclusions of how the other will behave based on how we expect that we would react.
A bunch of monkeys are watching a small clearing in the woods. One monkey walks into the clearing, seeing a banana laying on the open ground. The other monkeys watch as their brother picks it up, and is suddenly engulfed in a giant net as he triggers the trap that had been set. Mirror neurons firing like mad, they all howl in distress, imagining themselves in the same predicament as their ensnared colleague.
Our observations of human society and behaviors are far more complex, but of the same nature. When we see someone scratch their nose, we imagine they must have had an itch; when we see someone steal a steak from a supermarket, we make all sorts of assumptions about that person's level of hunger, relative wealth or poverty, and moral upbringing.
By and large, we are correct - this is how we function as a culture and as a society. We may never truly "know" what others are thinking, but we can get a pretty good idea, at least enough to support the myriad and complex interactions of human society.
On the other hand, those assumptions are merely that - assumptions, mental models, the "mental maps" of Erich Fromm, the schema of the linguists, the samskara of the Buddhists. These maps and models are formed from our own experience and filtered through our own individual perceptions and prejudices, and are subject to fallacies and misunderstandings. I think that a lot of human conflict is based on a failure to resolve differing sets of samskara.
Case in point: my now former teacher is also quite an accomplished artist, and several months ago the Zen Center's Board of Directors suggested that he display several of his pieces in the reception area and elsewhere around the Center before he took them to an upcoming show to let the sangha get a better idea of his talent and even possibly sell a few pieces and earn some money. Sensei complied, and because of the limited space available, some of the pieces were even displayed in the meditation hall.
One evening, a friend of mine accompanied me to the Center, and seeing the artwork, came to appreciate Sensei even more, perceiving his intuition, his sensitivity, and his talent from the artwork displayed. She thought more highly of him as a spiritual teacher for her experience of his art.
However, another person came to the Center, saw the same artwork, and considered it the height of egotistic arrogance for Sensei to display his artwork at the Center. The fellow concluded (incorrectly) that Sensei decided unilaterally to display the pieces, and wrote a scathing email (copying me for some reason) that he had never before seen or heard of such egocentricity and arrogance displayed by a so-called spiritual teacher, and noting that no other artists were included in the display, that Sensei couldn't even bear the slightest bit of competition.
Same initial behavior, same setting - two completely different perceptions and reactions.
My conclusion, and the point of this whole post, is that we can understand what other people are thinking and feeling to some extent, but that our perception of those thoughts and feelings are filtered through our own mental models and maps and are subject to error. We can use them as a guide, but should be cautious of relying on them too heavily.
Yesterday, I noted that my perceptions of my former teacher are now different than they were in the past, and anticipated that they will probably be different again in the future. It would be a fallacy to assume that I'm "right" now, but was "wrong" in the past and will be likewise incorrect in the future, but it is also a fallacy to deny my perceptions in the here and now. Hence, I've taken the steps I've taken whilst trying to minimize the amount of hurt and pain that others may experience and to avoid behaving in ways that others might misperceive (although there will always be some inevitable misperception).
By the way, remember that monkey caught in the net? It turns out the trapper was merely a zoologist, and kindly let the monkey go again after the experiment (with the banana for good measure).