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Soak Up The Zunshine
To explain "Theory of Mind," Stephen Pinker, in The Blank Slate (now a supreme bargain, at $10.88 for the paperback), uses the example of artificial intelligence researcher Rodney Brooks, who wants to built a robot capable of learning by imitation.

The robot is observing a person opening a glass jar. The person makes a number of physical motions while doing it, including wiping his brow. The robot then attempts to imitate the action. The question for the robot is, which parts of the action are important for reaching the desired goal? And then, how can the robot abstract what he learned by observation and apply it in a similar situation?

Pinker writes:

The answer is that the robot has to be equipped with an ability to see into the mind of the person being imitated, so it can infer the person's goals and pick out the aspects of behavior that the person intended to achieve the goal (underlining is mine). Cognitive scientists call this ability intuitive psychology, folk psychology, or theory of mind. (The "theory" here refers to the tacit beliefs held by a person, animal, or robot, not to the explicit beliefs of scientists.) No existing robot comes close to having this ability.

Pinker then gives another example -- the chimp Nim Chimpsky, who seemed to imitate his psychologist-trainer Laura Petitto's washing of dishes. There was an important difference:

A dish was not necessarily any cleaner after Nim rubbed it with a sponge...and if he was given a spotless dish, Nim would "wash" it just as if it were dirty. Nim didn't get the concept of "washing," namely using liquid to make something clean. He just mimicked her rubbing motion while enjoying the sensation of warm water over his fingers.

Pinker notes that chimps and other primates have "a reputation as imitators," they lack the ability people do, to replicate "another person's intent rather than going through the motions."

I used that Pinker piece as a preface to recommend an amazing book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, who happens to be a friend of mine, but that's not at all why I'm recommending you read her. What's especially amazing about her book is what an easy-to-understand, enjoyable, and even fun read it is -- and on a topic that you'd think would be tough to wade through (although, I should warn that it's not for those whose reading is typically limited to the Grishams and James Pattersons of the book world). That said, Lisa is not snobby about Grisham, or even "Saved By The Bell":

I have already mentioned the question that I was asked once about the "slightly autistic" adolescents who choose watching TV over reading novels. In the same vein, it was suggested to me that if somebody prefers Woolf to Grisham; or Grisham to TV; or novels to computer games; or long conversations about one's feelings to discussions of basketball games, it may testify to that person's mind-reading "excellence." I find such speculations misguided no matter how I look at them. Whereas common sense suggest that the mind-reading profile of a person who prefers Woolf to Grisham must indeed be somewhat different from that of a person who prefers Grisham to Woolf, I fail to see what practical conclusions about the person's overall mind-reading "fitness" can be made from the assumption of this commonsensical difference. GIven how intensely contextual each act of mind-reading is, I would not be able to predict how a "typical" avid reader of Woolf would conduct herself in a complex social situation as opposed, say, to a "typical" avid reader of TV Guide.

Because I'm a little behind in everything right now, and because Nick Gillespie describes the book so well, and even interviewed Lisa, I'll excerpt what he wrote in Reason:

Why do we—men and women, boys and girls, Brits and Americans—read fiction in the first place?

As it happens, there's a rich new book out on precisely that topic: Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, who teaches English at the University of Kentucky. Zunshine is a Russian emigre who earned her Ph.D. at University of California at Santa Barbara, where she worked with two of the major players in evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Zunshine uses recent developments in cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" to explain why human beings are drawn to both the creation and consumption of narrative texts. "Theory of Mind," writes Zunshine toward the end of her book, "is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind."

In a recent email exchange with me, she explains further. We have an "evolved cognitive predisposition to attribute states of mind to ourselves and others" that is also known as "mind-reading." "These cognitive mechanisms," writes Zunshine, "evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings, seem to be constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, works of fiction manage to cheat these mechanisms into believing that they are in the presence of material that they were 'designed' to process, i.e., that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances."

In a sense, then, we read novels about Meursault and Heathcliff, Montana Wildhack and Elizabeth Bennet, because they allow us to practice what we do elsewhere in our lives: Figure out the world by figuring out, or at least trying to figure out, what other people are thinking and feeling. Zunshine fills in the details with bravura chapters about novels with notoriously unreliable narrators (e.g., Lolita and Clarissa) and a long section on the detective novel, which underscores the desire and need to assign motives to whole casts of characters. The result is nothing less than a tour de force of cutting-edge lit-crit.

Read it, and you'll never look at fiction the same way. Her section on the detective novel is especially fascinating, by the way,

Here's a photo of Lisa from the last Human Behavior & Evolution Society conference (Hint: She's the one who's NOT Francis O'Steen). She's really pretty incredible, and is now on a Guggenheim fellowship, researching theory of mind at Yale. Actually, here's a really cute photo of Lisa, by Griet Vandermassen, author of another interesting book, Who's Afraid Of Charles Darwin.

Lisa's a typical Russian emigré underachiever, huh? another guy I happen to know.

Posted by aalkon at November 10, 2007 11:07 AM


I have a finger (my own) for every piece of fiction I've read in the last ten years. Any others like this out there? What does the book say about us?

Posted by: Crid at November 10, 2007 8:50 AM

It seems we enjoy this exercise of theory of mind -- that we enjoy the exercise of working out what other people are thinking. This would have been a necessary survival tool evolutionarily, so it makes sense that we have an instinct, a predilection for it. I'll try to write more later, but I'm on deadline for the book and the column, and I have to run over to my neighbor's for a few hours. Lisa is actually a regular lurker here, it turns out -- she wrote to congratulate me on the book and was surprised to see the entry on her as well! I'll see if she'll pop by and leave a few comments.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 10, 2007 9:15 AM

Here's more, from a piece she wrote for the Skeptical Inquirer:

Closely aligned with our cognitive ability to read minds is our evolved capacity for keeping track of sources of our representations (also known as metarepresentational capacity), including representations of our own and other people's mental states. For example, if I tell you that the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER has recently hired a professional psychic to answer the personal letters of readers who want to know their future, you will not just assimilate this information uncritically and start e-mailing the magazine to find out if your spouse is cheating on you. Instead you will store the representation the "SKEPTICAL INQUIRER has recently hired a professional psychic" under advisement and look for more information that would allow you to gauge its truth-value. Which is to say that the source tag, "Lisa Zunshine claims that," will limit the circulation of this representation throughout your mental databases and protect them from being corrupted by this potentially incorrect information. (1) If, after talking to other people, you find out that this magazine has indeed hired a clairvoyant, you may discard the source-tag, "Lisa Zunshine claims that," or retain a much weaker version of the tag, such as "it was Lisa Zunshine who first told me that...." If, however, you find out that I am the only person who insists that SI has finally succumbed to the charms of the paranormal, you will retain a very strong source-tag pointing to me affixed to that representation and will, moreover, entertain a gamut of surmises about my thoughts, beliefs, and intentions that prompted me to make such a strange claim in the first place. (Was she joking? Has she been misled herself? Is she a pathological liar? Did she lie only to me? Is it possible that she meant something else?)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 10, 2007 9:24 AM

Lisa just e-mailed me in response to your question, Crid. She writes:

Dear Amy,

I am happy to answer this question because I actually don't think that
reading fiction makes us better people or better "mind-readers" in real
life. I talk about it in my book when I say that "I had a friend once
who delighted in discussing emotions and multiply-embedded mental
stances, and was, on the whole, what we call a "sensitive" man. Yet he
could not stand reading fiction, and generally was not fond of any
reading because of a certain visual impairment that made it difficult
for him to focus his eyes on the page. What gives? Theory of Mind makes
reading fiction possible, but reading fiction does not make us into
better mind readers, at least not in the way that I can theorize
confidently at this early stage of our knowledge about cognitive
information processing." And I return to this point again in part
three, in the section entitled "Why Is Reading a Detective Story a Lot
like Lifting Weights at the Gym?" when I say that people who don't read
detective stories--or even much of any fiction--still get plenty of
relevant interaction with their social environment to keep their Theory
of Mind "in shape":

One may argue, then, that detective stories literally exist for
assiduously cultivating what Dr. Sheppard would consider a "rather . .
. suspicious attitude" in the reader. In this respect, whodunits can be
enjoyable and even addictive in the same way as weightlifting can be
enjoyable and addictive: the more you train a certain muscle the more
you feel that muscle and the more you want to train that muscle. Note
that I am using the far-from-perfect body building analogy on purpose
to stress that just as not everybody is an avid bodybuilder-though
everybody has a body and is in principle able to lift weights to train
isolated muscles-so not everybody is an avid detective reader or is
even remotely interested in detective narratives. Those of us who do
not work out with weights still get enough indirect exercise from our
everyday activities to keep our muscles from atrophying, and,
similarly, those of us who do not read detective stories (or even much
of any fiction) still get plenty of relevant interaction with our
environment to keep our metarepresentational capacity "in shape." The
assumption that reading detective stories works out our
metarepresentational capacity thus allows us to account both for the
enjoyment that we derive from such stories and for the fact that such
enjoyment is not universal.

Furthermore, even if weightlifting makes one generally stronger, and
detective-novel-reading makes one a veritable expert in the genre, both
experiences still remain in many ways decoupled from reality. Just as
overdeveloping one's triceps, biceps, and trapezoids generally does not
give the bodybuilder any particular advantage in her everyday
activities -it certainly does not make me more adept at handling such
crucial items as a pen, a laptop, a phone, and a fork-so keeping on a
steady diet of detective stories does not make one a particularly
discerning social player. It does not help me see through somebody's
lies and it does not help me to know which "clues" to pay attention to
in order to get to the truth of a given matter. In fact, applying what
I have "learned" from a murder mystery to my everyday life could make
me a social misfit: there is an important difference between being
able, in principle, to revise one's views based on new evidence and
going around deliberately suspecting everybody of being not what they
seem, "just in case." In this respect, detective narratives may be said
to parasitize on our metarepresentational ability: they stimulate it
without providing the kind of "educational" benefit that we still
implicitly look for in what we read. Delight they do, but instruct they
don't, or at least not in the traditional sense of the word

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 10, 2007 10:27 AM

I would go so far as to suggest that some people read in order to fulfill their social hard-wiring without having to take any risks.

I have always been a bone fide bookworm, and have metamorphosed from an extremely gregarious person into a misanthrope. But the social aspect of my nature still demands fulfillment, which can often come from reading and posting on blogs like this.

I read a minimum of 20 novels and 10 works of non-fiction a year. I don't think that it makes me more or less introspective, socially well-equipped, or prone to fantasy, but that it satisfies both my need to commune with social constructs, to fill my time, and to also exercise my powers of discernment and criticism.

I think that it is obvious that a reader of novels is no more better a judge of character than someone who spends all of her free time in bars. Possibly the opposite, depending on which subculture you are examining.

But one thing I have great difficulty reading is psychological treatises. Honestly, I have tried. So, if my previous comments were totally off the topic, you can chalk it up to "novel readers being inept socially". :)

Posted by: liz at November 10, 2007 10:56 AM

Read it, and you'll never look at fiction the same way.

Oddly enough, I figured this out when I was thirteen. It was after reading Brave New World Revisited and reading Frank Herbert for the first time. I think it also helped that I discovered Joseph Campbell around the same time and started writing stories of my own.

I realized that fiction is realy a portal that allowed me to explore the minds of others. For mediocre to bad authors, it is a portal into the authors mind. For really good authors, it is a portal into many minds.

The greatest coup however, was discovering what writing fiction could do for me. At first, it provided me with deeper insight into myself. As I progressed, it provided deeper insight into my perception of others. Finally, it provided insight into existing social structures and social structures that could be.

I think the last is possibly the greatest gift of good fiction. I also think that Herbert was probably it's grand master.

Crid -

I am not surprised. Most every intelligent conservative I know, eschews fiction for the most part. My dad falls into that category. The fiction that he has read and enjoyed is restricted to authors such as Gore Vidal, James Clavell and the like. I would guess that he reads about one novel a year, in spite of being a voracious reader. This seems to be a running theme with most intellectual conservatives I know. Very little fiction and that which is read, is quite plausible and realistic.

I think that this is mostly a sign that you are quite firmly grounded. Also that you have a strong fondness for common reality. You are comfortable with the status quo and prefer to live in the now and focus only on the immediate future and small adjustments, rather than sweeping social changes.

Perversely, I read a novel every week or two. While I also read a lot of non-fiction, I focus mostly on philosophy, psychology and social theory, with a smattering of hard science. I also prefer to take a very long view, from the beginnings of the Universe, to the dim reaches of the future. It's no wonder that while I appreciate most genres (can't stomach romance), I read mostly fantasy and scifi.

Posted by: DuWayne at November 10, 2007 1:18 PM

I read huge amounts of fiction when I was younger; in fact, reading was how I spent much of my time, but like Crid, I rarely read novels these days, and I'm just overwhelmed with nonfiction.

The greatest coup however, was discovering what writing fiction could do for me.

I find writing nonfiction is a way I gain insight, as I do a lot of research and thinking that I might not do otherwise, and build new ideas out of the reading. That said, "theory of mind," to name just one example, doesn't directly relate to my column -- I'm just interested, so I've read up on it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 10, 2007 1:26 PM

...but like Crid, I rarely read novels these days, and I'm just overwhelmed with nonfiction.

I am not in the least bit surprised.

It's funny, but I actually do an untoward amount of research, into the stories I write, though I rarely share them with others. I have a powerful interest in social theory (and the mind theory) and find that fiction is a great platform for exploring different ideas. I try to avoid making it all about me though, thus the amount of reading I do on the topic. While it is impossible to avoid ones own perceptive filter altogether (impossible whether writing fiction or non), it helps to balance my own perceptions and assumptions with those of others.

Posted by: DuWayne at November 10, 2007 2:27 PM

I should add that I write a lot more non-fiction, than fiction. Unless you count song lyrics, which are not really easily categorized as fiction/non.

Posted by: DuWayne at November 10, 2007 2:33 PM

Interesting discussion, Amy. Several researchers agree with Pinker these days -- that human consciousness evolved as a result of early hominids attempting to make predictions about the behavior of others (both like and unlike themselves). Those who could best predict the behavior of their opponents gained an evolutionary advantage, and survived. Some speculate that later on, this ability to "place one's self in another's shoes" led to self-awareness. Steve Grand, for instance, believes that human brains are basically "prediction machines," and he is attempting to build one artificially based on that premise.

Posted by: Norm Nason at November 11, 2007 12:51 AM

I've always loved the quote:

"If you decide to read just one book this year...keep very, very quiet about it!".

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at November 11, 2007 7:13 AM

I know I'm a few days late to the party here, but what does Lisa have to say about those of us bookworms who like to re-read a particular work of fiction once a year or every few years? I average a book a week (fiction and non-fiction). I've been a voracious reader since I was a very small child. There are some "classics" (not necessarily in the Literary Canon sense) I happily revisit every year. If our mind has already navigated a particular social world, do we get anything other than pure pleasure out of this exercise?

Posted by: Rebecca at November 13, 2007 9:12 AM

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