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by William Ickes
Prometheus, 2003
Review by Kevin Purday on Mar 18th 2005

Everyday Mind Reading

There are some books that, although rewarding, are very hard going. Other books, although they transport us into the depths of complex problems, guide the reader so beguilingly that s/he is unaware of the difficulties of the journey. Everyday Mind Reading definitely falls into the latter category. The author is the professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. This book is in many ways the distillation of his work and numerous publications on the topic of humans' ability to intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although the book is a serious contribution to and indeed a summary of our present knowledge about that ability, it is not aimed solely at the social psychology specialist. It is deliberately written to be equally readable for the interested layman who wants to know more about what are so often called 'the sixth sense' and 'emotional intelligence'.

The book starts off with a light-hearted foreword by the author's former teacher at the University of Texas, Elliot Aronson. The author himself then takes us by the hand and introduces us to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth century explorer, spy and polymath who seemed to possess the uncanny knack of being able to peer into the depths of the minds of those with whom he came into contact. How did he do it? The author then reveals his lifelong passion to find out how it can be done. As a young faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, he realized that if he were to understand the process, he would have to blend the traditional psychology experiment (where the experimenter manipulates a variable while keeping other factors constant) with a more naturalistic observational approach. In collaboration with colleagues and graduate students he develops a method by which pairs of naïve participants find themselves alone. Unknown to them, they are being videoed. After their permission has been gained, they individually see the video and are encouraged to recall their own thoughts and feelings and then record what they thought were the thoughts and feelings of the other member of the pair. This basic process was used for pairs of male strangers, pairs of female strangers and male-female pairs. This basic process is now made more sophisticated by the addition of finely tuned questionnaires which produce a sort of personality inventory which can be used in conjunction with the record of their responses to pinpoint what sort of personality characteristics accompany success or failure to exhibit the sort of empathy necessary to infer what another person is thinking or feeling.

The author guides us from his earliest research to the present day and we hardly notice that the research has got progressively more complex and detailed. We are just swept along by his fluent prose and his ability to make the complicated seem simple. There are, however, some surprises in store for us. Women are just better at all this empathy business than men, right? Well, not exactly. Most women are just as bad at making correct empathic inferences as most men unless there is a trigger of some sort to alert them to the fact that their empathy potential is being tested and then women do rise to the occasion and outperform men. Without that trigger, they are just as bad as the opposite sex! Mind you, men still remain just as bad even when they are provided with the trigger so women do come out of it on top! Married couples become better and better at making correct empathic inferences about one another the longer they are married, right? Again, no and a pretty firm no this time. The research seems to show that courting couples and newlyweds make a deep effort to ascertain what their partner is thinking and feeling. This seems to reach a peak for partners in a non-arranged marriage at about eighteen months to two years after the knot was tied and after that it is downhill all the way! (The author hints that partners in an arranged marriage might exhibit a different pattern of behavior. There is a nice piece of research waiting to be done.) The explanation is a variant of the traditional 'stuck in a rut' scenario but sad nonetheless. Women in a relationship where the man is verbally or physically abusive are often responsible for the situation, right? Wrong again. Abusive men generally have a block about women in general and constantly misinterpret the spoken words and the actions not only of their partner but of women in general. Non-verbal behaviour is as important as if not more important than the spoken word, right? Wrong again. A combination of the two provides the best chance of correct empathic inferences but, given a choice of the visual only or the audio only, the latter provides only a slightly less good basis for correct empathic inferences than the two together. Monozygotic twins are much better at making correct empathic inferences than fraternal twins, right? Wrong again. Empathy is not a biological let alone a supernatural phenomenon. It is being able to share the same frames of reference that enables people to make correct empathic inferences. That ability is almost as easily acquired by fraternal as identical twins and, indeed, it is a skill that can be learned, given the motivation, in a fairly short period of time.

For the reviewer by far the most interesting part of this altogether interesting book was the section dealing with the links between autism and the inability to make empathic inferences. People at the most severe end of the autism spectrum suffer from a drastic inability to empathize. On the other hand, people at the high achieving/Asperger's Syndrome end, although they suffer from problems in empathizing, are often able to articulate what those problems are and to describe the feelings that they are going through. There is some evidence that this latter group does not suffer from an inability to empathize but, rather to the contrary, may be suffering from an overload of information about the other person that they simply cannot process all at once.

This brings us to the final and quite technical part of the book that deals with the relatively recent discovery of mirror neurons in the human brain. Their existence was already known from primate research so perhaps their existence in humans should not have come as a surprise. Mirror neurons are nerve cells that fire when their owner performs a certain action. What is interesting is that they also fire when s/he perceives someone else performing that identical action. This raises the possibility of a physical basis for our ability to make correct empathic inferences. It may also link up with physiological synchrony which is most famously found among groups of women living together where over time their menstrual cycles synchronize. If this physical basis is true, it is possible that severely autistic people have damaged or malfunctioning mirror neurons. There is plenty of research still to be done.

This is a fascinating book that social psychologists will devour and the wider public will relish. It is beautifully written and has been superbly proofread. For everyone who wants to know the truth about the so-called 'sixth sense' and 'emotional intelligence', this is the book to reach for. Scholarly and easily accessible at the same time. Brilliant. A final note but not, unfortunately, a piece of correct empathic inference on the part of the reviewer but rather a useless piece of factual information: the author tells us that much of the inspiration for his early work came from John Fowles' novel The Magus. Although it is set on the fictional island of Phraxos, John Fowles used the real Greek island of Spetses as the basis for his novel as locals still proudly point out forty years later.

 

 

© 2005 Kevin M. Purday

  

Kevin M. Purday is Head of the Cambridge International High School in Jordan and recently completed the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.