Login | September 21, 2018

You’re reading me, but are you reading me?

Law Bulletin columnist

Published: October 11, 2017

As a choice of super human powers, the ability to fly is vastly overrated. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t like it, Transportation Security Administration would be a big nuisance and your neighbors would think you’re weird.

A much more practical super power is the ability to read minds. Imagine a trial lawyer who could do that! Settlements would be a breeze. She would win every motion. Jurors would be putty in her hands.

No surprise that people have obsessed about it since the first caveman wondered what women thought of his new saber-toothed tiger loincloth.

Back around that same time — the Pleistocene epoch, I think — when my dad was trying cases, there was a book in fashion called “The Varieties of Temperament.” I kept it as a souvenir, and it surely rates on any list of thoroughly disproven theories.

The book contained numerous modest photos of different body types. Bodies were carefully classified as an ectomorph (thin), mesomorph (muscular) or endomorph (fat). Each type and subtype had scientifically assigned personality types. A trial lawyer would be able to know a lot about someone’s personality just by looking at them. If only!

We returned a second time to see how mentalist Marc Salem was able to figure out what we were thinking. His book, “The Six Keys to Unlock and Empower Your Mind,” lists various facial expressions, gestures, body displays, paralanguage and eye movement which supposedly tell what a person is thinking.

“When a person is lying, they pause longer in the middle of a sentence, provide shorter answers to questions and take longer to begin their response to questions than someone who’s merely nervous. After all, they need time to create the lie. … When people lie, they move their hands a lot. … A smile is the most common facial expression to mask emotion. … In a masking smile, nothing moves but the corners of the mouth and often they curve down rather than up.”

Salem refers to a recognized book by Ray Birdwhistell, “Kinesics and Context,” which breaks down the thousands of nonverbal movements we all use constantly. He developed incredibly detailed hieroglyphics for microkinesic recording.

“As a skilled spectator under optimal conditions, I can record or reproduce 15 degrees of lid closure quite distinct from each other,” Birdwhistell writes.

He discusses one recording: “The young man’s over youthful, clear-eyed ‘sincerity,’ with appreciative humor, is consistent with the slit-eyed belly holding and genital scratching of the older man.”

Virtually every periodical from the Washington Post to Cosmo to Forbes has done articles on how to know what people are thinking.

A recent Reader’s Digest article identified seven basic types of eye movement: “If you ask someone to describe his first bicycle, you would expect an upward-right movement as the person tries to remember how the bike looked. If, however, the person imagined the bike as sitting in the bowling alley where you are now sitting, the eyes might move up-left, as your friend is constructing a new image with an old object.”

Numerous books like Peter Collett’s “The Book of Tells” and Joe Navarro’s “An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed Reading People” give plenty of tips on the inner secrets to knowing what someone else is really thinking.

But maybe trying to read minds through body language is a fool’s errand.

Rebecca Saxe gave an interesting TED Talk, “How We Read Each Others’ Minds.” She actually demonstrated the transcranial magnetic stimulation part of the brain at work trying to understand another person.

In her last remark, after all of her study and all of her research she concluded, “But I want to give the last word back to the novelists, and to Philip Roth, who ended by saying, ‘The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living. Getting them wrong and wrong and wrong, and then on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.’”

And University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Epley wrote this about his book, “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want”: “My goal in ‘Mindwise’ is to reduce the illusion of insight you have into the minds of others both by trying to improve your understanding and by inducing a greater sense of humility about what you know — and what you do not know — about others. Only by recognizing the limits of your brain’s greatest sense will you have the humility to understand others as they actually are instead of as you imagine them to be.”

Human communication is hard. Just getting your takeout order right has been proven virtually impossible.

Hon. Michael R. Panter (Ret.) is a senior mediator at ADR Systems of America LLC. He previously served in the Law, Family and Municipal Divisions of the Cook County Circuit Court. He was a trial lawyer for 30 years. Share responses and comments at mikepanter.com.