WHY WE READ FICTION: Theory of Mind and the Novel – by Lisa Zunshine

Read FictionTeacher!  Teacher!  I know!  I know!  It’s to escape the living hell that is our life.  Right?  Right?

Well, yeah, but not always, and it is not really the right answer if you are  a scholar of 18th-century British literature, whose interests include cultural historicism, narrative theory, and cognitive science.

This non-fiction work, academic in style, interesting in scope,  gives us the real low down on why we are snorting up those romances, detective stories, and other literary gems like they are a line of cocaine.  It is to satisfy our cognitive cravings.

She talks about our mind-reading ability.  OK, not the type of mind reading of The Amazing Kreskin or Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, or any of those mentalist folks.  but because mind reading, or what is known in those jazzy neuropsychology circles as Theory of Mind,  is the seemingly magical ability to map someone’s mental terrain from their words, emotions, and body language, she suggests that fiction engages, teases, and pushes to its tentative limits our mind-reading capacity.

We nosy humans just love trying to figure out what others are thinking and planning, because we are all hardwired  to deceive others, and, if we’re especially invested in someone, to deceive ourselves.  Thus it behooves us to try to get into others’ minds.  so we bring this predilection to fiction, where we can exercise our mental muscles, much like going to the gym and climbing the rock wall in prep for real life. (Yeah, like I’m going to leave the stationary bike where I can sit down and exercise in order to ruin my manicure and damage my body climbing some surface which isn’t even a real mountain. pfffft).

Her second point is metarepresentationality. I love academics and their fabulous vocabs.   Metarepresentationality is our ability to keep track of sources of our representations.  What that means in jez us folks speak is the ability to remember who said what, who did what, and who thought what.  As in:  Mary understood that John believed that Alice’s love for Bill was irrational because Bill really was in love with Betsy who was  actually a lesbian and not at all interested in Bill.  OK.  Got that?  Of course you did.  That’s five layers of representation.  We usually can handle four layers with ease, five makes us pay closer attention, and beyond that we generally need a scorecard.  Now you can think of a lot of novels that have that kind of layered plot and you don’t usually have any problem keeping it all straight.  Our brains like that.  Keeps us from getting bored.

She has a long section on one of my favorite genres, detective fiction, where everyone, including the author, is out to deceive everyone else.  The bad guy is lying, the related people to the dirty deed often tell less than the truth for their own purposes, and finally, the author him/herself is busily engaged in deceiving us, the Gentle Readers, doling out hints, facts and blatant red herrings, forcing us to really exercise those mind reading muscles and those abilities to keep in our mind everyone’s alibis and stories and backgrounds.

The really fascinating thing about all of this is that when we read fiction, we know it is fiction, and yet we work those cognitive muscles anyway.   As she tells us

… works of fiction manage to “cheat” these cognitive mechanisms into “believing” that they are in the presence of material that they were “designed” to process, that is, that the very process of making sense of what we read appears to be grounded in our ability to invest the flimsy verbal constructions that we generously call “characters” with a potential for a variety of thoughts, feelings, and desires and then to look for the “cues” that would allow us to guess at their feelings and thus predict their actions.

Although on some level we readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people, we cry at the sad parts anyway, and rejoice at their  triumphs.  What cognitive mechanisms or processes make pretense and imagination as such possible?  Just how  we manage to keep track of fictitious characters’ unreality is a mystery, and very complicated indeed.

This is a very basic reduction of this theory which delves deeply into how, and why, and more how, we approach fiction, and if you like an academic approach that is pretty darn readable for us non-academic types, I highly recommend you give this book a shot.

dog reading





2 comments on “WHY WE READ FICTION: Theory of Mind and the Novel – by Lisa Zunshine

  1. Mary Smith says:

    Sounds fascinating. I guess the theory works with film, too. We can be weeping or sitting on the edge of our seats in terror despite knowing it’s not real.

  2. Deb Atwood says:

    Aha! So there is a method behind the reading madness. Good to know. Now, let me get back to my detective novel…

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