This three-part chain—sharing attention, imitating action, and imitation creating experience—shows one way in which your sixth sense works through your physical senses. More important, it also shows how your sixth sense could remain disengaged, leaving you disconnected from the minds of others. Close your eyes, look away, plug your ears, stand too far away to see or hear, or simply focus your attention elsewhere, and your sixth sense may not be triggered.
The importance of physical distance for engaging our sixth sense is perhaps best illustrated by a surprising problem for military leaders in times of war: soldiers in battle find it relatively easy to shoot at someone a great distance away but have a much more difficult time shooting an enemy standing right in front of them. George Orwell described his own reluctance to shoot during the Spanish Civil War. “At this moment,” he wrote, “a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards. . . . Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”
Orwell is far from alone. Interviews with U.S. soldiers in World War II found that only 15 to 20 percent were able to discharge their weapons at the enemy in close firefights. Even when they did shoot, soldiers found it hard to hit their human targets. In the U.S. Civil War, muskets were capable of hitting a pie plate at 70 yards and soldiers could typically reload anywhere from 4 to 5 times per minute. Theoretically, a regiment of 200 soldiers firing at a wall of enemy soldiers 100 feet wide should be able to kill 120 on the first volley. And yet the kill rate during the Civil War was closer to 1 to 2 men per minute, with the average distance of engagement being only 30 yards. Battles raged on for hours because the men just couldn’t bring themselves to kill one another once they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes. Even General George Crook’s men had this difficulty. At Rosebud Creek on June 16, 1876, his men shot 25,000 musket balls but hit only 99 Native Americans, wounding just 1 person with every 252 shots. Modern armies now know that they have to overcome these empathic urges, so soldiers undergo relentless training that desensitizes them to close combat, so that they can do their jobs. Modern technology also allows armies to kill more easily because it enables killing at such a great physical distance. Much of the killing by U.S. soldiers now comes through the hands of drone pilots watching a screen from a trailer in Nevada, with their sixth sense almost completely disengaged.
All of this research highlights how our sensory experiences make it possible to understand the minds of others. General George Crook was able to recognize Standing Bear’s suffering, appreciate his plans, and understand the injustice because he saw the Poncas’ pain right before his eyes and listened to their stories as told through their own voices. Government officials too distant and disconnected to use their senses remained disengaged, making it more likely for them to think of the Poncas as mindless savages. You consider the minds of others, at least in part, when your other senses lead you to.
TRIGGER NO. 2: INFERRING OTHERS’ MINDS
Other people obviously do not need to be standing right in front of you for you to imagine what they are thinking or feeling or planning. You can simply close your eyes and imagine it. You can imagine that someone who got fired is deeply unhappy or know that being cut by a knife is painful without having to see a pink slip or blood. When company executives think of their customers, husbands think of their wives, or politicians think of their constituents, there is no need to have a customer or wife or constituent on hand to trigger these people’s physical senses. They can rely on their inferences based on what they already know (or think they know) and work from there.
You can see this distinction between senses and inferences working clearly in the minds of doctors. Over time, doctors naturally become desensitized to the distress and pain of their patients, just as you habituate to any repeated experience, yet doctors retain the ability to know when their patients are in pain and when they are not. Far from being a bad thing, dulling their empathic sense is essential to the practice of medicine. You and I would be physically crippled trying to give another person an injection. A doctor may not feel it when another person is in pain, but can infer that the other person is in pain without any difficulty. There seem to be two different routes to understanding the mind of another person.
In fact, scientists can now pinpoint these different routes in the brain. In one experiment, physicians who practiced acupuncture lay on their backs in an fMRI machine and watched videos of people being poked with needles. Some videos showed people getting poked in the foot, others in the hand, and others in the lips. These are painful to watch, I promise, at least if you’re not a physician. Nonphysicians who watched these videos had the same reaction I do, with the neural regions that are active when actually experiencing physical pain first-hand also being active when watching other people experiencing pain. It quite literally hurts to watch someone else being hurt. The physicians, however, showed virtually no response in these physical pain regions at all. Instead, the physicians showed activity in a very different part of the brain, most notably a relatively small spot in their medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This spot is located about one inch above and behind the inside part of your eyebrows, on each side of your brain. For the good of your social life, try not to get injured there.
More important for you than its location is the MPFC’s function: it is involved in making inferences about the minds of others. When you wonder, “What on earth are they thinking?,” your MPFC is engaged. When you are mulling over what your mom wants for her birthday, you’re using your MPFC. And when you are calmly noting, “That person is in pain,” your MPFC is engaged. When the physicians in this experiment saw someone getting poked in the face with a needle, they did not feel the person’s pain. Instead, their engaged MPFC indicated that they calmly inferred the other person’s pain. Most of us might wish that our doctors were more sensitive, perhaps better able to feel our pain, but what we really want is for them to know of our pain. We do not want a doctor’s empathy; we want a doctor’s MPFC.
The MPFC and a handful of other brain regions undergird the inferential component of your sixth sense. When this network of brain regions is engaged, you are thinking about others’ minds. Failing to engage this region when thinking about other people is then a solid indication that you’re overlooking their minds. Research confirms that the MPFC is engaged more when you’re thinking about yourself, your close friends and family, and others who have beliefs similar to your own. It is activated when you care enough about others to care what they are thinking, and not when you are indifferent to others. It is significantly less active when you’re thinking about the minds of those who are psychologically distant from you. When Republicans think about what fellow Republicans believe, they are using the MPFC. When Republicans think about what Democrats believe, they are using their MPFC a bit less. Democrats do the same thing, of course, just with the opposite groups.
This neural activity is important because it tells us something critical about how people think about one another. Those who are close to us are considered mindful human beings, “like me.” As people become more and more different from us, or more distant from our immediate social networks, they become less and less likely to engage our MPFC. When we don’t engage this region, others appear relatively mindless, something less than fully human.
A neuroimaging experiment shows this most clearly. In this experiment, American university students lay on their backs in an fMRI scanner and looked at pictures of relatively close in-group members— fellow college students and “Americans”—and more distant out-group members—the elderly and rich people. Most interesting were these students’ responses to pictures of homeless people, a group that was seen as being the most different from the students themselves. In the scanner, pictures of homeless people triggered the MPFC significantly less than photos of any of the other group members, and instead produced activation more similar to that seen when participants looked at disgusting objects, such as an overflowing toilet or vomit. Outside the scanner, these participants rated the homeless people as more disgusting than any of the others. More tellingly, the volunteers also rated the homeless as being less mindful—less intelligent, less articulate, and less emotional. The homeless were seen more as mindless objects than as fully mindful people.
You don’t need to look deep into a person’s brain to see the consequences of failing to engage your MPFC. You can hear it in the impressions people share about the minds of others. In calling for welfare reform in 2010, for instance, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, André Bauer, likened the poor to “stray animals” whose government assistance should be curtailed. “You know why?” he said. “Because they breed. . . . They will reproduce, especially ones who don’t think much further than that. . . . They don’t know any better.” Bauer’s sixth sense appears to have been disengaged, as is true for many people when they think about the poor, the homeless, the most disadvantaged and distant of social groups. Distance—a sense of dissimilarity, of difference, of otherness—can keep your MPFC uninvolved, leaving you to think about other human beings as something less than fully human.
The mistake that can arise when you fail to engage with the minds of others is that you may come to think of them as relatively mindless. That is, you may come to think that these others have less going on between their ears than, say, you do.
This may sound too abstract, but there are many subtle examples of it in daily life. Let me start with one from the most basic and fundamental experience you have of your own mind: your sense of free will. Although many scientists have little patience for explanations of behavior based on free will, there is no doubt that you and I feel like we have it. It seems that we can freely choose to eat another doughnut or not, move our fingers or not, keep reading this book or not. But what about the minds of others? Are others as free to choose as you are, or do they have less free will? Are they more beholden to their circumstances or their environments or their rigid ideologies than you are?
The finding from careful research is that most people answer these questions by claiming that they have more free will than others do. For instance, having free will means being independent, free to choose any of a number of different options regardless of the surrounding circumstances, in accordance with one’s own interests and desires. In one experiment, college roommates were asked to report how predictable their past decisions in life were and how predictable their future decisions will be. Each person did the same for his or her roommate. These students rated their own past and future as considerably less predictable than their roommates’ past and future, as if their roommate had less free will—a lesser mind—than they did.
Free will also requires being able to choose between different options—“life is what you make it,” as the saying goes. In another experiment, employees at two different restaurants were given a list of things they might be doing over the next ten years, from where they could be living (for example, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, an apartment in the same town) to where they could be working (in the same job, in an exciting job, in a boring job, having no job) to what their lives would be like (same lifestyle as now, more family-focused lifestyle, more carefree lifestyle). They circled all the possibilities that seemed likely, then did the same for a coworker they knew well. At the end, the researchers counted the number of genuine possibilities people had circled, and there were markedly more circles for one’s own future life than for the well-known coworker’s life. Having free will allows you to make wonderful choices, but it also allows you to make terrible choices. If you ask people to chart out their futures compared to others’, they don’t simply report having more freedom to end up with good options, such as owning a great house or having an exciting job. They also report having more freedom to end up with terrible options, such as owning a crappy house or having no job at all.
It’s not only free will that other minds might seem to lack. This lesser minds effect has many manifestations, including what appears to be a universal tendency to assume that others’ minds are less sophisticated and more superficial than one’s own. Members of distant out-groups, ranging from terrorists to poor hurricane victims to political opponents, are also rated as less able to experience complicated emotions, such as shame, pride, embarassment, and guilt than close members of one’s own group. One series of experiments even found that apologies from distant out-groups, such as Canadians being asked to forgive Afghan soldiers for a friendly-fire incident, are relatively ineffective because those distant others are seen as relatively unable to experience remorse. Their apologies therefore seemed disingenuous.
When the mind of another person looks relatively dim because you are not engaged with it directly, it does not mean that the other person’s mind is actually dimmer. Standing Bear was seen as being less than fully human—as being unsophisticated, unintelligent, and unfeeling—and today this seems like a relatively rare instance of extreme prejudice. Perhaps it is, but it is also an example of how being disengaged from the mind of another human being can make them appear relatively mindless, as having less going on between the ears than you and your close friends do. More subtle versions of that disengagement are common, and the mistakes they create can lead us to be less wise about the minds of others than we could be.
Excerpted from “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want” by Nicholas Epley. Copyright © 2014 by Nicholas Epley. Reprinted by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.