Theory of Mind: Literature and Writing

Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

It is a fascinating study that branches out into neurological science, behavioral science, and various social sciences. It is also interesting from a literary point of view — because, after all, what are we doing when we read a book but entering the minds of the characters?

Lisa Zunshine, in Why We Read Fiction, argues that in novels, we are given up close and intensely personal representation of how characters succeed or fail at reading each others’ motives and desires.

In our everyday life as well as in our reading, we strive to become mind readers, working to intuit those moments of embodied transparence in which we can read not just the emotions but the intention of others. “Embodied transparence” is that striven-for moment in which we truly know the minds of others.

I am sitting in a Starbucks people watching, as a woman leans toward the man sitting across from her. I think, she is into him! I think I’m reading her mind — but then she picks some crumbs off his shirt, and I hear him say, “Is it all gone? I can’t interview looking like a slob,” as the woman nods and sits back. I did not read her mind after all.

This is a very old game that humans have been playing since early times. We observe others for survival, but even when we feel no danger we are so curious that we have created worlds of people who never existed, and have handed them down through generations.

Mindreading games are as old as people learning to suppress their true emotions, motivations, and intentions. As much as people wish to hide their thoughts and feelings, others want to find them out. It can be fun to play games that tease out the truth, but it can also be dangerous.

For example, the game of “Portraits” was very popular at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. In this game, you described people, sometimes poetically, and the wits around you were expected to display their knowledge of the in crowd by guessing correctly who was described.

A very powerful and high ranking courtier, Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (better known as Bussy-Rabutin) exercised his considerable wit by circulating among the In Crowd his cleverly written portraits of the young king’s mistresses.

Louis XIV found out, and was not amused.

Bussy-Rabutin found himself tossed into the Bastille for a year, following which he was confined to his estate for the next seventeen years.

As the novel evolved, types of narration also evolved. Novels became very popular in the mid-1700s with the introduction of the epistolary novel. Narration took several forms over the years following, but it was Jane Austen who truly mastered the omniscient narrator who very rarely breaks the fourth wall to directly address the reader. Instead, she mostly wrote from the point of view of women — establishing that what women thought and said mattered — occasionally employing a subtle bit of craft that we now call “free indirect discourse.”

This is different from indirect discourse, in which what a character says is narrated rather than put in dialogue form. Free indirect discourse blends what the characters thinks with what the narrator thinks.

Indirect discourse: He thought about mooning the corrupt politician. Then he asked himself why he shouldn’t do it.

Free indirect discourse: He thought about mooning the corrupt politician, after all, why shouldn’t he damn well do it?

Virginia Woolf was one of the first who decided to toss out the narrative tricks developed during the nineteenth century rise of the novel: the omnisicient narrator who stays behind the curtain and reports everyone’s thoughts and actions without commenting; the omni narrator who steps out to address the audience (such as Thackeray in Vanity Fair), the omni narrator who is a minor character but sees and knows all; and then there is the first person omni narrator who somehow gets the god’s eye view.

Woolf developed a detached narrative voice that not only does not reveal characters’ every thought, but also does not tell the reader what to think. The reader has to figure out motive and intent and emotion by close reading as the characters mirror the expressions and gestures of real-life.

That gave rise to the fashion in third person limited, and camera eye view, in which we are only told what the characters do and say, rarely what they think. As the twentieth century ushered in the modern age, literary fashion changed to either first person limited, or third person.

Levels of intent are fun to figure out, especially with unreliable narrators. Most books go to two levels: I know that you know what time it is. But complicated texts can reach for and even five levels—Tom believes that Mary thinks that Tom believes that Mary lied when she said, “No.”

Everybody loves to be “in the know.” This fundamental desire is one of the reasons why we read. However successful we are at mind-reading in real life, we can’t be shut out of the characters’ inner lives in a book—or if we feel we are shut out, we soon weary of the book and stop reading.

Other ways that theory of mind relates to writing could extend into a gigantic post, so I’ll keep it to one observation. Though the fashion for the omni narrator has largely gone, still, writers can fall into the habit of telling readers not only what the character knows or thinks about a given situation, but what the reader ought to think about the character.

There are a host of terms and metaphors so often used they have become generic. On the good side, they are immediately understood, and the pacing races along. Not so good, they tend to make characters seem generic types if enough of them are used, and also we note the emotion we’re supposed to be feeling without actually evoking it.

And because we are visual beings, most of these are about the eyes.

Poker players in high stakes games are not interested in metaphors about sudden gleams, sparkles, blazes, stabs, or twinkles. Instead, they are observing what they call “tells,” the subtle twitch of eyebrow, tensing of shoulders, brushing of one hand over the hair, the altered breathing, that indicate changes of emotion, and decision. Duelists, ditto.

So instead of doing the work to report this character’s “tells’ when thinking and making a decision, a writer will offer well-worn metaphors, maybe with verb variations that don’t actually mean anything: Something slithered behind her eyes.

Since we don’t actually see anything slithering in anyone’s eyes (ew!), much less behind them (double-ick!) we recognize a familiar metaphor for an evil person: we’re being herded by the narrator toward what we’re to think about that character.

If she’s a heroine, we’re more likely to get lights (something dimmed behind her eyes, or lit behind her eyes, or blazed behind her eyes). All these are easy to parse, but so common that when all character interaction is expressed in such metaphors, the character herself tends toward becoming unmemorable—indistinguishable from the thousands of other characters we’ve read who had “somethings” slithering, blazing, flowering, withering, galloping, exploding, or creeping in their hearts, minds, souls.

Virginia Woolf demonstrated how the writer who wants to create memorable characters works to express how this character shows anger (flushed face? White lips? Shoulders up? Fists tight? Head back, head lowered?), and that character reacts, either noticing it or oblivious. The art comes in the revealing detail, and also being aware of how human beings apply selective attention in order to focus on what matters to them.








Theory of Mind: Literature and Writing — 8 Comments

  1. The game of guessing what a person is thinking or what their story is–and the hilarious results of getting it wrong–oh yes. There was a woman in my yoga class who seemed very formal and self-contained; she had very short hair and a pleasant but faint smile and bright eyes. She never spoke. Soon I had a whole scenario in my head: she had obviously taken a vow of silence! That and the yoga were part of some spiritual discipline she was engaged in, and– at that moment, I saw her talking and laughing with the instructor. Whoops, wrong! (Admittedly, my scenario was unlikely, but really she had never spoken before… that I had seen.)

  2. Speaking of theories of mind. Literacy itself apparently alters the way the brain processes information. I am not sure a theory of mind would exist without it because apparently people (who are very intelligent and knowledgeable) in preliterate societies seem much less aware of their own and other people’s mental processes.

    • Literacy itself certainly does alter the brain and the way we process information; the best example is how learning to read affects people’s conception of their language and the components of language. (For example, it can be very difficult for a literate person to stop thinking of the spoken language as being composed of *letters*. This is true even of very intelligent, introspective people who are studying linguistics.) But if people in preliterate societies seem much less aware of their own and other people’s mental processes, that may also be due to the fact that literate societies have more philosophy and science in general.

      • I wonder if that observation about conception of language goes for literate people who happen to be very visual, or who learn other languages by the immersion method first, listening and speaking before approaching the written version. But otherwise agree–written work makes it much easier to share a wealth of ideas.