Zunshine, a literary studies scholar, states early on that "we can predict...that no cultural form will endure unless it lets us attribute mental states to somebody or something."
She bases this bold statement on findings that arise from cognitive psychology and evolutionary theory. According to cognitive psychologists, "...to make sense of any human action, we must see it in terms of a mental state that prompted it." She adds "psychologists have a special term for [this] evolved cognitive adaptation...They call it theory of mind, also known as folk psychology and mind reading."
Zunshine goes on to explain that we've been "mind reading" for hundreds of thousands of years. According to evolutionary psychologists, this trait helped our ancestors "make sense of the behavior of other people in their group, which could number up to two hundred individuals." By now, this feature of our make-up is so habitual that much of our "mind reading" is an unconscious reflex.
But this ability stops far short of telepathy. No matter how important it is to know the intentions of others, we can't be certain of what's actually in the mind we're reading. As Zunshine puts it elsewhere, rather than "mind reading" we might call this habit "mind groping." This is why, I take it, our culture is so obsessed with the inner thoughts and confessions of people.
As I haven't finished reading Getting Inside Your Head yet, I'm not yet convinced that what makes cultural productions last is their appeal to this trait. This is a pretty big claim.
But as a metaphor, "mind reading" is certainly potent. So much so that I find myself spontaneously thinking of examples that support the author's case.
Consider, for instance, this iconic scene from Goodfellas. Its suspense and humor seem to arise from a little "mind reading" test that Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) gives Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). The scene begins right after Tommy tells a hilarious story and Henry compliments him for being so "funny."
Henry makes an assumption about Tommy's "mind state." He thinks Tommy enjoys telling humorous stories and getting laughs. He also assumes their relationship is one of easy familiarity.
Tommy then pulls the rug out from underneath Henry, making him question his interpretation. This is why the seconds of silence in this scene are so gripping. As I watch it, I'm drawn into Hill's mind; I identify with his uncertainty about really knowing what Tommy's thinking.
The laughs that erupt once the silence is broken and we find out that Henry really could see into Tommy's mind (judging finally that Tommy is putting him on) arise from the release from anxiety (for both the characters and viewers). And after watching that scene, I found myself thinking of many social situations where such awkward silences occurred whenever I've said something in jest and was not quite sure how others took it.
Zunshine also argues that "mind reading" is so habitual that it's activated not just by people -- but their representations. When we see a statue, we are compelled to interpret what this piece of stone is thinking. Or, to return to my example, there's the scene from Goodfellas where Tommy plays art critic to his mother's painting:
Pesci's character is quite specific in deciphering this work. He even tells us what the guy on the boat is thinking! (See the Art, Life, TV, Etc. blog for more on this scene.)
Another example that came to me of the expression of this trait is the psychological novel -- particularly the convention of "stream of consciousness" narration. Here's a paragraph from Joyce's Ulysses that I found in an essay on "theory of mind" by Deirdre Wilson:
"What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal from, were Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom and Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom's thoughts about Stephen? He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not."
And such mental gyrations are not, of course, confined to the novel. Literary critic Brian Boyd, for example, argues that one of the reasons why lyric poetry persists -- despite the common criticism that it is no longer influential -- is that that it "allows us the illusion of access to another's thought" unconstrained by the conventions of story telling.
Somewhere in all of this I sense a fascinating new functional definition of the arts. But that's a topic for other posts. In the meantime, I'm wondering if anyone would like to share their thoughts about these thoughts about thoughts?