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.