by Zoe Pollock

Slate excerpts Jesse Bering's new book, The Belief Instinct:

If you've ever seen an unfortunate woman at the grocery store wearing a midriff-revealing top and packed into a pair of lavender tights like meat in a sausage wrapper, or a follicularly challenged man with a hairpiece two shades off and three centimeters adrift, and asked yourself what on Earth those people were thinking when they looked in the mirror before leaving the house, this is a good sign that your theory of mind (not to mention your fashion sense) is in working order. When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally "theorize" about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

The evolutionary significance of this mind-reading system hinges on one gigantic question: Is this psychological capacitythis theory of mind, this seeing souls glimmering beneath the skin, spirits twinkling behind orbiting eyes, thoughts in the flurry of movementis this the "one big thing" that could help us finally understand what it means to be human? Could it tell us something about how we find meaning in the universe?

 

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