I think you suspect I believe you agree with my opinion.

I’ve been reading Lisa Zunshine’s wonderful book Why We Read Fiction – Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006), which ties together literary theory and cognitive psychology – specifically “Theory of Mind” (ToM is the mental model we construct of what people are thinking/feeling). The book shows how the pleasure we get from reading about fictional characters derives from the pleasurable sensation of continually testing the evolutionary adaptation that allows us to form such mental models.

The underlying science, in brief: Well developed ToM improves group/clan cooperation and bonding, and therefore is good for species survival, so individuals in our species have evolved to find pleasure in maximizing those abilities. Our brains get so much pleasure from working out peoples’ motivations and underlying emotions that we seek out such mental activities even in fictional contexts.

All of this ties in with the “Hack the Character” theories that I talked about on January 9 and in related posts, and that I sometimes talk about in public. I think that’s why she gave me a copy of her book. :-)

I’m at the point in the book now where I’m reading about the experiments conducted in the lab of Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford, to find out what limits there might be on the complexity of the ToM mental models we can form. Specifically, how many levels can we nest thoughts like “he thinks that she believes that they agree with…” before we get lost. Dunbar et al designed some really clever experiments which showed that most people have no trouble nesting four levels deep, but start to lose it at five. For example, I suspect that the five-nested sentence in the title of this post might be pretty tough for most people to decypher.

And that suggests what might be an interesting game. Can we carefully construct sentences that require highly nested theory of mind, and yet won’t confuse people? For example, I’ve managed to make a sentence that nests five-deep, which I’m guessing will be completely clear to most people reading this:

I think Obama worries that voters won’t like his Pastor’s belief that white people are racist.

Can we go deeper than this, and still make sense? Or are our poor little minds not up to the task, no matter how clever we are in trying to circumvent our limited brain power? I’m open to suggestions.

5 Responses to “I think you suspect I believe you agree with my opinion.”

  1. sally says:

    AGGGH! Its verbal “PAD”!!! Its PAD all over again! Depths of nesting!!!!

    Run!!!!

    I find, what helps with those 5 layer sentences–is punctuation. Frequent punctuation.

  2. I think the sentence below still makes sense. It’s the sort of thing that you might read at the end of a thousand comment long thread on Usenet.

    My brother’s friend’s wife wrote, “I would suppose most people are aware that the media has made a big deal of the fact that Obama worries that voters won’t like his Pastor’s belief that white people are racist. “

  3. I just came across the following sentence starting a Huffington Post article by Joseph Palermo:
    “I just read that James Carville called New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday: ‘An act of betrayal.'”

  4. J. says:

    Might not this be a case in which people cannot understand ideas that are not being clearly articulated due to complicated sentence structure that is incomprehensible due to too many reversals of intent or perhaps lack of punctuation?

    Some people may state that Theory of Mind does not provide the best explanation of cognitive facility, but to me it appears to offer a seemingly logical and non-trivial basis for a rationale that doesn’t feel unfamiliar.

    (I agree with you, Sally– in general, I’m a particular fan of the semicolon. :) )

  5. […] I think we will need to go back to some of the ideas I discussed two years ago when talking about Theory of Mind, and the great work in this area by Lisa Zunshine and others (about which there was a lovely article the other day in The New York Times). In other words, we […]

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