A Theory of Theory of Mind

Michael Bérubé reviews Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture by Lisa Zunshine, in American Scientist:

9781421406169_p0_v1_s260x420Lisa 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.

More here.