Efficient Mind-Reading

Max J van Duijn, Ineke Sluiter, and Arie Verhagen, ‘When Narrative Takes Over: The Representation of Embedded Mindstates in Shakespeare’s Othello’, Language and Literature, 24 (2015), 148-66.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a colloquium at Magdalen College, Oxford. It was organised by the good people of the Adults at Play(s) project (see here), part of the Calleva Research Centre. I’ll name them all – why not, it was a very good event with decent sandwiches and everything: Felix Budelmann, Robin Dunbar, Sophie Duncan, Evert van Emde Boas, Laurie Maguire, and Ben Teasdale.
      The event focused on belief in the theatre: why we engage emotionally with things we know aren’t real. People addressed the issues from a variety of perspectives, and the panels were diverse. I found myself speaking third after two superb presentations. One was by Nicola Shaughnessy (Kent), who introduced her ‘Imagining Autism’ project. I suggest you click on this link to find out about that. The other was Jennifer Barnes (Oklahoma), for whom I can’t find a single total integrated web page, but then her double life as (i) Psychologist and (ii) Young Adult Novelist would take up a lot of space. This seems to be her university’s basic intro.
      Jennifer introduced a nuance to the idea of theatrical belief by suggesting the usefulness of its possible complement alief. The idea is that we have beliefs, which are conscious and thoughtful things, but we also have instinctive, unacknowledged aliefs (still in italics; I can’t commit to the word really; can it really be made by replacing the ‘b’ of ‘b’lief’ with an ‘a’; is that OK? Who gets to say?). One classic example often cited is a glass walkway at the Grand Canyon. We might believe it will hold us, but we might alieve that it will break. Jennifer offered a better example from her research into cult fiction fandom. In her view many fans do not believe, for example, that Ron Weasley exists, but they reveal an alief that there is a Ron Weasley outside the Harry Potter books because they are able to say ‘Ron wouldn’t do that!’ with great conviction. My contribution was to say, mildly, that if we believed in Shakespeare’s fairies at all, and quite possibly it’s not the right word, then it was strikingly easy to do.


Later in the day Max Van Duijn (Leiden) spoke about his research, and his talk took me to the paper cited above. He is interested in literature and ‘theory of mind’, which has been one of the liveliest parts of the ‘cognitive approaches’ field. In the essay Max refers to influential work by Lisa Zunshine, and by colloquium organisers Robin Dunbar and Felix Budelmann.

* Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction. Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus, 2006)
* Robin Dunbar, ‘Mind the Gap, or, Why Humans Aren’t Just Great Apes’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 154 (2008), 403-23.
* Felix Budelmann and P.E. Easterling, ‘Reading minds in Greek tragedy’, Greece and Rome, 57 (2010), 290-303.

In their essay Max and his collaborators take the idea of ‘multiple-order intentionality’ and depart from the usual literary-critical way of thinking about it. In novels and plays (Othello has a big role) we see configurations of ‘A believes that B thinks that C intends (etc.)’. Keeping track of these things is ‘cognitively demanding’, but it might be wrong to exaggerate how taxing literary examples are, even when they seem to going beyond the usual limits. The essay argues that we can see how writers use techniques (some of which will be available in non-literary contexts) to make the piling up of ‘multiple-order intentionality’ (minds reading minds reading minds reading minds…) feasible.
      They put forward six ‘expository strategies’ which allow economies of effort in following these complex paths: Characterisation; Focalisation and viewpoint alteration; Framing; Episodic structuring; Time management; Redundancy. I won’t try to summarise all of these here but the idea is that literary (and other) ‘theory of mind’ happens in the midst of supporting frameworks that make it easier than it looks to follow that ‘Iago intends that Cassio believes that Desdemona intends that Othello believes that Cassio did not intend to disturb the peace’. This seems very interesting to me, because on the one hand, it does seem important that literature draws us into these complex thought processes, but on the other hand, a play like Othello has engaged large audiences for a long time (as the essay points out), so its difficulty can’t be unmitigated.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.