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FREW Consultants Group        
Tuesday, August 07 2018

Theory of Mind

We continually reinforce the importance of the relationship built with the students, particularly those with dysfunctional behaviours.  These relationships are very much based on an emotional connection and rely on how we feel/think about the child, how they must be feeling and thinking as we interact.  This ability to ‘put your self into their shoes’ is explained by what is known as Theory of Mind.  Individual development of Theory of Mind begins when a child first develops a sense of separation from their primary care giver, a sense that they are a distinct identity. 

Up until about age three children feel they are part of a combined consciousness, they think that whatever they know everyone else knows, that all minds are in a sense connected.  They slowly come to terms with the fact that only they know what they are feeling, thinking, what are their desires, etc.; others can’t possibly ‘know’.  Ultimately they realize their thoughts are their own and there is an advantage if they can deduce what the other is thinking.

This ability to recognize the mental state of the other and therefore predict what will happen next becomes more sophisticated over time.  Just watch how older children manipulate their juniors and how parents and teachers do the same.  This ability to anticipate what the other is thinking is a skill in which successful adults, including teachers excel.  But thinking you know what another is thinking remains a ‘guess’ and for teachers of children with a toxic sense of shame, an incorrect ‘guess’ can have devastating outcomes.

There has been a lot of research into this ‘mind reading’ with varying results.  Initially mirror neurons (see an essay on this topic in the resources page) were seen as underpinning this ability.  Mirror neurons are activated in your mind when you see another person performing an action.  How they are activated depends on the anticipated purpose of that action.  Therefore our own brains anticipate, predict what the other is going to do next.  In recent times the importance of these neurons in predicting other’s behaviour has been questioned but remains a possible explanation. 

Rebecca Saxe, in her popular TED Talk claims to have located the part of the brain, the right temporopartietal junction, and area just behind the right ear that specializes in thinking about both our sense of self and thinking about others’ thoughts.  She has demonstrated this through manipulation of the magnetic field in this area and through the traditional study of people with injuries in this area and the impact these have on their functioning.  Like mirror neurons this gives a clue but not a definitive explanation.

It seems both accounts explain the intent of the behaviour but we really can’t know what another is really thinking; it is impossible.  There is as much chance of  ‘knowing’ how another thinks or feels as there is in answering Thomas Nagel’s famous question ‘what is it like to be a bat’?  We can have no idea, bats navigate with sound, they can fly; this statement demonstrates just how impossible that would be.  So why does this strong belief we know what others are thinking, this belief that underpins our ability to empathise, to have compassion, to care about others holds us together as a community?  The answer is in predicting behaviour in particular situations.

The one ability we do have is that of pattern recognition.  This is the foundation of our sense of self and how we fit in our environment.  We learn about life through repetitive actions and consequences; that is we learn the pattern of behaviours in particular circumstances.  And this seems to be effective in helping us negotiate with others.   After all, these others come with an almost identical genetic profile and have the same process of developing their ‘sense’ in a ‘human’ environment.  We don’t develop a bat sense in a bat environment!

It is an examination of this last point that explains the risk of believing you can read others’ minds.  Throughout the work of our consultancy we have focused on the dysfunctional behaviour of children who cause us difficulties in the classroom.  In the overwhelming majority of cases these kids not only have been raised in ‘dysfunctional’ environments, the result of their early abuse and/or neglect has left them with substantial brain damage in the parts of the brain that control behaviour. 

The impact ‘cerebral difference’ has on our sense or the sense of others, is described by Jane Joseph, who examined the brain of an elite climber, Alex Honnold.  Honnald is famous for climbing the sheer faces of steep mountains and cliffs without any safety equipment; any mistake would be his last.  What Joseph wanted to know was their any difference in the climber’s perception of fear.  She did this by placing Hannald in a fMIR machine and examining his response to very emotive and disturbing photographs that in a normal population light up the amygdala, the seat of our emotions especially fear in our brain. When examined Hannald displayed no increase in activity in this area.  It is obvious that the performance of his brain was markedly different to the normal person in a fear evoking situation and any prediction others made about how he would feel when threatened would almost certainly be wrong.

Amy Dowel from the Australian National University, who studied psychopaths, provides collaborating evidence for the particular difference in response to emotional conditions.  The psychopaths had little trouble passing a test that is based on recognising the faces of happy, sad, angry, etc. individuals and their results in these areas were the same as the general population.  But when the picture required the identification of someone who was ‘upset’ the psychopaths could not recognize this.  The capacity to recognize distress in others was a particular blind spot in their ability to predict what was going on.  This explains how psychopaths can be charming and engaging on most levels yet can treat others appallingly with no concept of their feelings.

Research into the area of ‘mind reading’ is becoming better at predicting other’s potential behaviour thanks to bigger data sets and more powerful computing techniques.  In the area of suicide prevention the results are well above that of chance and in fact Facebook have installed a function that will alert users if they are presenting a pattern of ‘behaviours’ that indicate a risk of self-harm or suicide.

But the dependence on reading the other’s mind remains a problem for all of us but particularly for those working with damaged kids.  We know these kids have damaged brains and as for their amygdala’s they have the opposite response to threat as that of Hannalds.  These kids have enlarged amygdala’s and are overly activated when confronted with threatening situations.  Their responses will be different from the climber’s and more importantly, for the sake of prediction the general population.

On top of this, the historical patterns the teacher relies on to predict what these children are thinking will be completely different than the patterns on which these children base their predictions.  You can’t know what they are thinking.  That is, you see the world through your history and they see it through a different history, they are not the same and so guessing ‘what comes next’ will not be the same.

So what to do?  Well in the first instance interact with these kids in a compassionate way basing your responses or reaction on the behaviour they present not the behaviour you predict.  This may cause some problems initially, when you want to intervene early and avoid problems but the more you delay your responses the more you can discover their particular patterns and start to understand why they behave in a certain way.   Teachers have to reject certain dysfunctional behaviours but by doing so you teach them about your world and they can learn new patterns of behaviour.  Understanding that you can’t really understand where their behaviour is coming from helps you remain compassionate about the child in the face of outlandish behaviour and supports the important relationship.

Understanding the problems that come with really knowing what students are thinking underscores the importance of structure in the classroom.  The more structured the actions and consequences are, the faster the students will understand how their behaviour is connected to what happens to them.  That is, they will develop a new set of expectations about their life and how they can take control.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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