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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Do You Believe in Mind-Reading?

Few of us explicitly sign up to a belief in the occult art of mind reading: the view that – possibly with the help of some tarot cards or an ouija board – one person will be able to peer through another’s skull and divine their most elusive thoughts without any words being exchanged.

Nevertheless, we do tend – in a practical sense – very often to behave exactly as though we did trust in such an ideology. We constantly allow ourselves to get extremely frustrated with people for not knowing things that have a very substantial place in our minds and yet which, if we stopped to explore the delicate matter, we would realise we had never told them. We sigh repeatedly at the incompetence, short-sightedness, lack of empathy and selfishness of individuals to whom we have never granted any chances to know us properly. 

Photo of a deck of tarot cards spread out over a table, the Ace of Pentacles prominently displayed.
Photo by Viva Luna Studios on Unsplash

To judge whether we do – despite our professed rationalism – implicitly believe in divination and the telegenic transfer of information between psyches, we should undertake a basic exercise. We should make a list under the heading: ‘People who frustrate me – and what they don’t understand.’ It may be rather a long one; there might be a room in it for a child who never reads enough, a parent who keeps interrupting our work in the morning, a colleague who doesn’t properly update the website or a partner who has horrible shoes or a maddening habit of leaving the kettle pulled away from the wall (we actually like it very close to the sockets).

And then we should ask ourselves a simple but probably profoundly unfamiliar question: ‘Have we ever told them about this?’ Here, crucially, we don’t mean: have we ever grunted at them intemperately on our way out of the room, or have we reflected at length on their incompetence in the bath or on the train home? We mean quite literally: have we ever taken somewhere between one and ten minutes to go through in detail – with kindness, patience, humour and politeness – why something that happens to matter very much to us should ideally have some role to play in their own considerations.

If we can’t be certain that we have, if we have remained as tightlipped as we have been furious, though we may not explicitly vaunt our faith in runes and palmistry, we are progressing through existence with some of the esoteric spiritualism of a Madame Blavatsky or Georges Gurdjieff. 

Our hopes have origins that could be seen as almost sweet. Most of us were, at the very start of our lives, the beneficiaries of some astonishing minor acts of mind-reading on the part of our care givers. They might, in our first six months, have correctly guessed that we were after some milk when we began crying, that the sun was in our eyes when we squinted or that we needed a lie down when we seemed cranky. And it was from these generous acts of empathy that a more pernicious belief then took hold: that anyone who cared us about us would henceforth simply have to know what was going through our distressed minds without us needing to speak, even when the subject at hand might have graduated to the relatively more complex matter of what to do with the Italian tax rebates or how to invoice the Singapore client ahead of the conference. We have all already spent so many hours marinading in bitter-sweet reflections on what others have misunderstood about us and the deliberate delight they took in doing so. We should sometimes interrupt the fun with a question of near Cartesian significance: did we tell them?

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