Theory of Mind and Fiction

We live in other people’s heads: avidly, reluctantly, consciously, unawares, mistakenly, inescapably. Our social life is a constant negotiation among what we think we know about each other’s thoughts and feelings, what we want each other to think we know, and what we would dearly love to know but don’t.

We’ve been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. Cognitive scientists have a special term for the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes us see people’s observable behavior as caused by unobservable mental states, such as desires, feelings, and intentions; they call it “theory of mind,” or “mind-reading.” Though it may sound like telepathy, theory of mind is actually its opposite. Telepathy implies perfect self-conscious access to someone’s thinking. Mind-reading is approximate guessing and imperfect interpretation, most of it taking place below the radar of our consciousness.

As I argue in my book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, theory of mind evolved to track mental states involved in real-life social interactions, but on some level our mind-reading adaptations do not distinguish between the mental states of real people and of fictional characters. Fictional narratives feed our hungry theory of mind, giving us carefully crafted, emotionally and aesthetically compelling social contexts shot through with mind-reading opportunities. The pleasure afforded by following minds on the page is thus to a significant degree a social pleasure—an illusory but satisfying confirmation that we remain competent players in the social game that is our life.

Although cognitive scientists’ investigation of theory of mind is very much a project-in-progress, enough carefully documented research is already available to literary scholars to begin asking such questions as, is it possible that literary narrative builds on our capacity for mind-reading but also tries its limits? How do different cultural-historical milieus encourage different literary explorations of this capacity? How do different genres? Speculative and tentative as the answers to these questions could only be at this point, they mark the possibility of a genuine interaction between cognitive psychology and literary studies, with both fields having much to offer to each other.

Why We Read Fiction thus focuses on ways in which fictional narratives experiment with our theory of mind. Most recently, in expanding the focus to include other cultural representations (e.g., movies, paintings, musicals, and reality shows), I found it useful to introduce two new concepts: “sociocognitive complexity” and “embodied transparency.” Whereas Why We Read Fiction was published before I came up with these terms, it’s still the most comprehensive introduction to the study of theory of mind and fiction.



Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel