On Theory of Mind

Co-Authored with Loopy

One day I (Loop) was watching a football game with my dad. We were both invested in the same team’s victory, although Dad expressed this with much more gusto than me. At one point Dad predicted a blocked punt, and when it happened, he leaped up from his seat in joy, shouting and hopping around the room like he was a kid again. I remained seated. When a crucial fourth down conversion failed, Dad yelled again, this time cursing, enraged. I remained quiet.

The game ended in defeat. By the time of the final play, Dad was in the final stage of grief. He sighed, shook his head, vowed to stop caring so much about football, to do something else with his time. “Look at you,” he said. “So calm. Why can’t I be like you?”

I told my dad that sure, I wasn’t as sad about the loss as he was, but I also wasn’t as joyous during the game. I didn’t experience the celebratory energy he did throughout the past three hours. I wasn’t jealous of his experience, nor did I see my own as superior, we’re just different.

I can imagine how it might be ecstatic to feel both the highs and lows of the game as it unfolded. I’m curious about how that feels: the mental investment in the game, the vocalizations, the full-body reactions. That’s all foreign to me. I can partially understand it through being present with my dad, but it’s ultimately not how my mindbody interfaces with football. I’m glad to be curious, interested, and appreciative of my dad’s experience of the game, as opposed to judging it or wanting it to be any different.

By trying to understand the perspectives of people you interact with, you will improve the quality of your skill at communication as well as your relationships with other people in general.

This post shares our experience and understanding of theory of mind, as well as practical suggestions that have worked for us about how to improve it. 

We are not experts in theory of mind. If anything, we are good enough to know we are not very good at all. We can always understand people more deeply; it’s always possible to develop one’s theory of mind further.

We believe that universal adoption and practice of theory of mind would usher in a golden age for humanity. Give yourself the gift of a little golden age by practicing theory of mind with those around you. See what happens.

What is theory of mind? 

Theory of mind is our ability to understand that other people have their own experience, with their own values, beliefs, desires, feelings, etc., and that these are often very different from our own experience.

Babies and toddlers develop basic levels of theory of mind in childhood, but it is possible for one’s theory of mind to continue to develop and grow. Adult developmental psychology discusses different developmental stages that are possible for adults to mature into, concurrent with substantial advances in theory of mind. This maturation can include improved abilities to introspect and understand oneself; to take other’s perspective or see multiple viewpoints; understanding emotions and complex mental states; understanding of social dynamics, and more. 

There are theories of mind, plural. There are multiple doorways to understanding other people’s experience. Some methods of cultivating theory of mind might be easier for you than others. Here are a few of the flavors or genres of theory of mind that we have encountered:

  • Intellectual: reasoning out cognitively, logically, intellectually what someone else might be experiencing
  • Behavioral: paying attention to someone’s moment-to-moment objective behavior (smiles, eye contact, gestures, etc.) and using that to infer what someone else might be experiencing
  • Emotional: using one’s own emotions and heart to try to empathize emotionally with what someone else might be experiencing
  • Somatic Awareness: placing awareness in someone else’s body, letting your own body me a mirror for somatically understanding what someone’s experience might be like

How can you develop theory of mind?

Imagine that you’re in a crowded park in the city. There are people all around you: children and their parents, couples and single people, clowns making silly faces and blowing balloons, vendors selling street food, and more.

If you picked a single person you were near, could you sense what it’s like to be them? Could you imagine what they’re feeling emotionally, or what they’re caring about? Can you hazard a guess as to what their life is like?

You might find this prompt difficult. It might feel impossible to really know what it’s like to be someone else. But good news! You actually can get a better sense of what their experience is like, even if it’s not complete or 100% accurate—and doing so will help you in a variety of contexts that include other people. If so, you might find it useful to focus on developing theory of mind.

On the other hand, you might find this process interesting and enjoyable. You might relish the chance to wonder what it’s like to be someone else—to imagine their emotions, what their body feels like, what they do for work, who their friends are. You might enjoy watching the small details of their life that you have access to, and inferring what you can about them and their lives, without being particularly fixed on being accurate or correct about what you’re guessing. And you probably have a sense that you could always get better at this, that there’s always more to learn about other people.

Here are a small number of ways you could go about developing theory of mind:

  • When with people, pay attention to them, imagine what it’s like to be them, make reads or guesses as to what’s happening. Ask for feedback if you can!
  • Reading novels, watching movies, or other forms of fiction and intentionally focusing on trying to understand the different characters’ experience
  • Ask questions of other people, asking what it’s like to be them
  • Be aware of your own internal state, develop self-knowledge about what it’s like to be you
  • People watching
  • Circling

Our friend Vivid Void led a guided meditation on Imagining Being Someone Else, based on trying to intently, stably imagine what it’s like to be other people: imagining having their body in awareness, their feelings, their perspective and voice, their habits. Repeatedly practicing this guided meditation will also likely help you to develop theory of mind.

Try it out in conversation. Notice what does and doesn’t help you better understand others. Experiment!


Theory of mind is an active topic of interest and exploration for both of us. Here are some open questions we have about theory of mind:

  • What has your experience of theory of mind been? How have you cultivated theory of mind? Has it been similar or different to what we describe here?
  • Are there any formal methods or techniques for intentionally cultivating theory of mind? Is it possible to “theory-of-mind-pill” someone?
  • How does theory of mind relate to developmental psychology?
  • How does theory of mind relate to ethics and the cultivation of virtues?

May you delight in being curious about other people’s experiences. May you enjoy learning more about other people, and may you benefit from what you learn. ❤️

Further Resources

The art in this post was created by Loopy (cursive words by Tasshin), and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

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