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A Theory of Theory of Mind

Michael Bérubé

GETTING INSIDE YOUR HEAD: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture. Lisa Zunshine. xvi + 217 pp. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. $29.95.

Lisa Zunshine has a theory—a theory about theory of mind. It goes something like this (and in order to paraphrase it, I have to exemplify it, by getting inside her head as best I can): Our brains evolved in such a way as to render us all eager but flawed mind readers. Whenever we see each other, we try to figure out what other people are thinking; it is a necessary skill in a deeply social species—or, rather, we are a deeply social species precisely because we have this skill. We try to read each other by look, posture, expression, gesture. And, to make things more complicated (and/or fun), we know this about each other, so we also try deliberately to produce certain readings in others by feigning certain looks, postures, expressions and gestures. All the world’s a stage—and the world we have created includes millions of actual stages, where actors embody the principle that all the world’s a (self-reflexive) stage.

Zunshine’s earlier book, Why We Read Fiction, argued that we read fiction in order to give our restless brains a good workout: In novels and short stories, we are given up-close and intensely personal representations of how characters succeed or fail at reading each other’s motives and desires. For extra added cognitive benefit, we watch characters succeed or fail at reading other characters’ attempts to read other characters’ motives and desires. According to Zunshine, the mental exercise involved in reading fiction serves an evolutionary purpose, deploying our theory of mind so as to flex and build the cognitive muscles that will help us navigate a bewilderingly complex world of subtle social cues. Drawing widely and judiciously on recent research in neuroscience, Getting Inside Your Head expands this theory to cover all of human culture, from novels to films, plays, musicals, paintings and reality shows. Our culture, Zunshine writes, is a culture of greedy mind readers” that relentlessly invents scenes of what she terms “embodied transparency,” in which characters are briefly readable to each other and/or to us, often at times when they intend not to be. In such scenes, we become able—or we are led to think we are able—to translate body language into a statement of intent: “That body, by virtue of being the object of our theory of mind’s obsessive attention, is a tremendously valuable and, as such, potentially misleading source of information about the person’s mental state.” It is potentially misleading because we can always feign a look, a posture, an expression or a gesture: “We end up performing our bodies (to adapt a term from cultural studies) to shape other people’s perceptions of our mental states.” Scenes of embodied transparency, then, delight us because they fulfill the brain’s need to decode social signals:

Instances of embodied transparency offer us something that we hold at a premium in our everyday life and never get much of: the experience of perfect access to other people’s minds in complex social situations. As such, they must be immensely flattering to our theory-of-mind adaptations, which evolved to read minds through bodies but have to constantly contend with the possibility of misreading and resulting social failure.

Despite the preponderance of oddly italicized phrases, Zunshine’s work brings to light some interesting features of narrative—brief episodes in which characters are rendered legible at moments of contemplation, anger or high drama. In her reading of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, Zunshine makes much of this passage, in which Mr. Darcy responds to Elizabeth Bennett’s rejection of his marriage proposal: “His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it.” That struggle is visible to Elizabeth—and, of course, to us. Such moments must be brief, Zunshine argues, because only social sadists try to render people legible for long periods—usually by means of torture or emotional cruelty.

Why do we need to experience such fleeting scenes in fictional representational forms, and how do those scenes affect us? Zunshine offers a couple of possibilities: “Does consuming embodied transparency on the page, onstage, and onscreen sharpen our appetite for it in our everyday life? Do we start perceiving people around us as more transparent than they are? Or do we get addicted to shows and stories that offer us a steady supply of readable bodies?” Zunshine’s money is (mostly) on the last of these, because that’s where her theory of theory of mind pays the highest dividends:

It’s only when we start thinking of mind reading as our most crucial and constant preoccupation (though not consciously so) as a social species that we can say that we like watching displays of emotion because they promise access to people’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and we evolved to value such access tremendously.

So far, so good. Zunshine’s theory is helpfully specific—by contrast with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal (2012), which argues that humans are hardwired to invent and consume stories, or Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories (2010), which argues that storytellers concoct devices in order to hold the attention of readers and/or listeners (both of which I reviewed in earlier issues of American Scientist). By focusing exclusively on theory of mind and embodied transparency, Zunshine is able to pinpoint one important feature of narrative and hold it up for closer inspection. But when all you have is a theory-of-mind hammer, everything starts to look like a theory-of-mind nail: “Movies, of course,” Zunshine writes, “are theory-of-mind-writ-large.” And one genre is theory-of-mind writ larger: “Because mock documentaries represent only a small segment of television programming,” she writes later in the book, “I feel justified in saying that they literally exist to cultivate moments of embodied transparency.” (I confess I do not understand the “because” here: If we value such moments so highly, shouldn’t mock documentaries represent a large segment of television programming?) Art criticism turns out also to be all about theory of mind: “This is what art criticism does—it introduces more mental states into our perception of an artwork.” And what about abstract, nonrepresentational art? That’s about theory of mind too: “It is as if we approach each painting ready and eager to attribute states of mind, and if something prevents us from attributing them to the subjects of the painting, we turn with the same eagerness to the artist and start thinking about her mind, and if we can’t do that, we begin to attribute mental states to ourselves.” Sometimes, when I look at a painting, I am looking at line, form, color or texture. The claim that I might be attributing mental states to myself seems to be a last-ditch attempt to salvage a theory-of-mind reading of abstract art at the cost of understanding abstraction—and understanding art.

This point opens onto to a larger question. I have no doubt that Zunshine is right to claim that scenes of embodied transparency are important. When we read about people trying to read one another, we are not merely reflecting on the difficulty and the necessity of everyday mind-reading; we are also performing complex cognitive operations that enhance our capacity for reading both texts and people. But surely they are not the only, or even necessarily the primary, reason that humans create and consume narratives. Sometimes we ask other questions: What happens to the characters, and is what happens to them right and just? (Mental states may be part of this question, but the abstract question of justice is not.) What kind of world is being created in this fiction? If it is narrative prose, what is the language like? If it is film or visual art, what does it look like?

In her reading of the 1994 film Quiz Show, Zunshine offers one example of how the theory-of-mind approach can miss the moral forest for the cognitive trees: “The quiz shows promised one kind of cognitive management and delivered another—that was their real ‘scandal.’” This statement makes sense only if you believe that the contestants on 1950s quiz shows such as Twenty-One and Tic-Tac-Dough were really performing embodied transparency, and then feel betrayed when you realize that their reactions were scripted. If you’re a reader like Zunshine, you watch game shows to see emotions, and you want to see real ones. But surely the real scandal of these quiz shows was not that they promised one kind of cognitive management and delivered another. The real scandal was that they purported to show real competition but did not. We thought we were watching a fair contest; we didn’t know the entire game was rigged. Somehow, that seems more important than the cognitive benefits I might have derived from seeing how contestants behaved in the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Toward the end of the book, Zunshine brushes off another readily available way of perceiving art—the possibility that representations of women might have something to do with ideas about sexuality: “A hypothesis that a given group of paintings featuring women reflects its time’s anxiety about women’s sexuality will be true about any group of paintings featuring women. It is thus trivially true because it does not predict anything about any specific painting or representational tradition.” It is a curious charge, since of course the same thing can be said of theory-of-mind readings: They will be trivially true about any narrative that offers scenes of embodied transparency. But they will be irrelevant to forms of art, abstract or otherwise, that do not offer such scenes, and they will be indifferent to or determinedly clueless about questions of right and wrong—in quiz shows as on all the stages of the world.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. He is the author of, among other books, Rhetorical Occasions: Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and The Left at War (New York University Press, 2009).

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