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Cognitive Disability and Textuality:
Autism and Fiction

2004 MLA Convention
Philadelphia, PA
27-30 December


Lisa Zunshine
University of Kentucky

Theory of mind, Autism, and Fiction

Do not cite without permission of the author.


Lisa Zunshine (

My talk today is inspired by the question that I asked myself about fourteen years ago, when I first came to this country and was going through one of those periods of reading fiction voraciously and almost indiscriminately. It was then that I first started wondering what is this strange craving? Science can explain much of what happens in our brain and the rest of the body when we want to eat, to drink, and to sleep, but what about wanting to read ? It can certainly feel as strong as a mild hunger. Perhaps, if deprived for some time, one can even become seriously ravenous for fiction and wax violent when flashed with the cover of Pride and Prejudice ? I wouldn't know because I have never dared to experiment with myself by not reading when I wanted to.

I remember thinking about these issues but also saying to myself that those are metaphysical and idiosyncratic questions that nobody can ever answer and that nobody would really care about. Today, however, I am reconsidering both my questions and my erstwhile certainty that they are not worth our attention. I believe that a conceptual framework emerging from recent research in cognitive science offers us a series of still tentative but nevertheless exciting insights into cravings that are satisfied--but also at the same time intensified!--when we read fiction.

  "Cognitive science" is an umbrella term that covers a large number of fields, including artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, cognitive anthropology, philosophy of mind, cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive linguistics. Every day new connections are forged among those fields, making cognitive science one of the most exciting interdisciplinary developments of our time.

For the purposes of our discussion today, I will focus on one particular area of research in cognitive psychology, which deals with our "Theory of Mind" also known as the "mind-reading ability. In spite of the way it sounds, mind-reading ability has nothing to do with plain old telepathy. Instead, it is a term used by cognitive psychologists to describe our ability to explain people's behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.

But, one may ask, why make such a fuss out of something so obvious? After all, our capacity for attributing states of mind on the basis of behavior seems such an integral part of what we are as human beings. The reason that in the last twenty years this capacity has received the sustained attention of cognitive psychologists is that they had come across people whose ability to "see bodies as animated by minds" (Brook and Ross, 81) was drastically impaired--people with autism. By studying autism and a related constellation of cognitive deficits (such as Asperger syndrome), cognitive scientists began to appreciate our mind-reading ability as a special cognitive endowment which makes possible and structures our everyday communication   and cultural representations.

            Described as the "most severe of all childhood psychiatric conditions," autism affects between approximately four to fifteen children per 10,000 and "occurs in every country in which it has been looked for and across social classes" (Baron-Cohen, 60). Although "mind-reading is not an all-or-none affair" and "people with autism lack the ability to a greater or lesser degree" (Sperber and Origgi, 163), and the condition may be somewhat alleviated if the child receives a range of "educational and therapeutic interventions," autism remains, at present, "a lifelong disorder" (Baron-Cohen 60). It is highly heritable, and its key symptoms, which manifest themselves in the first years of life, include the profound impairment of social and communicative development and the "lack of the usual flexibility, imagination, and pretence" (Baron-Cohen 60). It is also characterized--crucially for our present discussion--by a lack of interest in fiction and story telling, differing in degree, though not in kind, across the wide spectrum of autism cases.

            In his book An Anthropologist on Mars , Oliver Sacks describes one remarkable case of autism, remarkable because the afflicted woman, Temple Grandin, has been able to overcome her handicap to some degree. She has a doctorate in agricultural science, teaches at the University of Arizona, and can speak about her perceptions, thus giving us a unique insight into what it means not to be able to read other people's minds. Sacks reports Grandin's school experience: "Something was going on between the other kids, something swift, subtle, constantly changing--an exchange of meanings, a negotiation, a swiftness of understanding so remarkable that sometimes she wondered if they were all telepathic. She is now aware of the existence of those social signals. She can infer them, she says, but she herself cannot perceive them, cannot participate in this magical communication directly, or conceive of the many-leveled, kaleidoscopic states of mind behind it" (272).

Predictably, Grandin comments on having a difficult time understanding fictional narratives. She remembers being "bewildered by Romeo and Juliet : 'I never knew what they were up to'" (259). Fiction presents a challenge to people with autism because in many ways it calls for the same kind of mind-reading--that is, the inference of the mental state from the behavior--as is necessary in regular human communication.

To compensate for her inability to interpret facial expressions, which at first left her a "target of tricks and exploitation," Grandin has built up over the years something resembling a mental "library of videotapes, which she could play in her mind and inspect at any time--'videos' of how people behaved in different circumstances. She would play these over and over again, and learn, by degrees, to correlate what she saw, so that she could then predict how people in similar circumstances might act" (259-60). What the account of such a mental "library" suggests is that we do not just "learn" how to communicate with people and read their emotions. Grandin, after all, has had as many opportunities to "learn" these things as you and me. Instead, it seems that we also have evolved cognitive architecture that makes this particular kind of social learning possible, and if this architecture is damaged, as in the case of autism, a wealth of experience would never fully make up for the damage. Indeed, our tendency to explain observed behavior in terms of underlying mental states seems to be so effortless and automatic because our evolved cognitive architecture "prods" us toward learning and practicing mind-reading daily, from the beginning of awareness.


Note that people outside the cognitive science community may this emphasis on "effortless" and "automatic" mindreading unhelpful and even misleading. Literary critics, in particular, know that the process of attributing thoughts, beliefs, and desires to other people may lead to misinterpreting those thoughts, beliefs, and desires. Thus, they would rightly resist any notion that we could effortlessly--that is, correctly and unambiguously, almost telepathically--figure out what the person whose behavior we are trying to explain is thinking.   It is important to underscore here that cognitive scientists and lay readers (here including literary critics) bring very different frames of reference to measuring the relative "success" of mind-reading. For the lay reader, the example of a glaring failure in mind-reading and communication might be a person's interpreting her friend's tears of joy as tears of grief and reacting accordingly. For a cognitive psychologist, a glaring failure in mind-reading would be a person's not even knowing that the water coursing down her friend's face is supposed to be somehow indicative of his feelings at that moment.   If you find the latter possibility absurd, recall that this is how (many) people with autism experience the world, perhaps because of neurological deficits that prevent their cognitive architecture from narrowing the range of interpretive possibilities and restricting them, in this particular case, to the domain of emotions. Consequently, one of the crucial insights offered by cognitive psychologists is that by thus parsing the world and narrowing the scope of relevant interpretations of a given phenomenon, our cognitive adaptations enable us to contemplate an infinitely rich array of interpretations within that scope.

The elimination of irrelevant interpretations can happen so fast as to be practically imperceptible. Consider an example from Stanley Fish's essay "How to Recognize a Poem." To demonstrate his point that our mental operations are "limited by institutions in which we are already embedded," Fish reports the following classroom experiment:

While I was in the course of vigorously making a point, one of my students, William Newlin by name, was just as vigorously waving his hand. When I asked the other members of the class what it was that [he] was doing, they all answered that he was seeking permission to speak. I then asked them how they knew that. The immediate reply was that it was obvious; what else could he be thought of doing? The meaning of his gesture, in other words, was right there on its surface, available for reading by anyone who had the eyes to see. That meaning, however, would not have been available to someone without any knowledge of what was involved in being a student. Such a person might have thought that Mr. Newlin was pointing to the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, or calling our attention to some object that was about to fall ("the sky is falling," "the sky is falling"). And if the someone in question were a child of elementary or middle-school age, Mr. Newlin might well have been seen as seeking permission not to speak but to go to the bathroom, an interpretation or reading that would never have occurred to a student at Johns Hopkins or any other institution of 'higher learning.'

("How to Recognize a Poem" 110-111)

            The point that Fish wants to get across is that "it is only by inhabiting . . . the institutions [that] precede us [here, the college setting] that we have access to the public and conventional senses they make [here, the raised hand means the person seeks permission to speak]" (110). This point is well taken. Yet note that all of his patently "wrong" explanations (e.g., Mr. Newlin thought that the sky was falling; he wanted to go to the bathroom, etc.) are "correct" in the sense that they call on a   Theory of Mind, that is, they explain the student's behavior in terms of his underlying thoughts, beliefs, and desires. As Fish puts it, "what else could he be thought of doing?" (emphasis mine) Nobody ventured to suggest, for example, that there was a thin, practically invisible string threaded through the loop in the classroom's ceiling, one end of which was attached to Mr. Newlin's sleeve and another held by a person sitting behind him who could pull the string any time and produce the corresponding movement of Mr. Newlin's hand. Absurd, we should say, especially since nobody could observe any string hovering over Mr. Newlin's head. Is it not equally absurd, however, to explain a behavior in terms of a mental state that is completely unobservable? Yet we do it automatically, and the only reason that no "normal" (i.e., non-autistic) person would think of a "mechanistic" explanation (such as the string pulling on the sleeve) is that we have cognitive adaptations that prompt us to "see bodies as animated by minds."

            But then, by the very logic of Fish's essay, which urges us not to take for granted our complex institutional embedment which allows us to make sense of the world, shouldn't we inquire with equal vigor into our cognitive embedment which--as I hope I have demonstrated in the example above--profoundly informs the institutional one? Given the suggestively constrained range of the "wrong" interpretations offered by Fish (that is, all his interpretations connected the behavior to a mental state), shouldn't we qualify his assertion that unless we read Mr. Newlin's raised hand in the context of his being a student, "there is nothing in the form of [his] gesture that tells his fellow students how to determine its significance" (112; emphasis in the original)? Surely the form of the gesture--staying with the word that Fish himself has emphasized--is quite informative because its very deliberateness seems to delimit the range of possible "wrong" interpretations. That is, had Mr. Newlin unexpectedly jerked his hand instead of "waving" it "vigorously," some mechanical explanation, such as a physiological spasm or someone pushing his elbow, perhaps even a wire attached to his sleeve, would seem far less absurd.  

            To return, then, to the potentially problematic issue of effortlessness with which we "read" minds: a flagrantly "wrong," from our perspective, interpretation, such as taking tears of grief for tears of joy, or thinking that Mr. Newlin raises his hand to point out that the sky is falling, is still "effortless" from the point of view of cognitive psychologists because of the ease with which we correlate tears with an emotional state or the raised hand with a certain underlying desire/intention. Mind-reading is thus effortless in the sense that we "intuitively" connect people's behavior to their mental states--as in the example involving Walsh's "trembling"--although our subsequent description of their mental states could run a broad gamut of mistaken or disputed meanings. For any description is, as Fish reminds us on a different occasion, "always and already interpretation," a "text," a story reflecting the personal history, biases, and desires of the reader.


Whereas the correlation between the impaired ToM and the lack of interest in fiction and story telling is highly suggestive, the jury is still out on the exact nature of the connection between the two. It could be argued, for example, that the cognitive mechanisms that evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings are constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, then, works of fiction manage to "cheat" these mechanisms into "believing" that they are in the presence of material that they were "designed" to process, i.e., that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances. Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all.

The question of just how we manage to keep track of the "unreality" of literary characters is very complicated and directly relates to a larger question currently considered by cognitive scientists, namely, what cognitive mechanisms or processes make pretence (and imagination as such) possible. Trying to explain why autistic children do not engage in spontaneous pretence, Peter Carruthers, suggests that they lack access not only to other people's mental states but to their own mental states as well. Carruthers thus argues that the " awareness of one's mental state makes possible the enjoyment derived from the manipulation of this state and that the awareness of the attitude of pretending does not even have to include the content of what is pretended. Rather, it need only--at most--meta-represent that it is now pretending " (265). Therefore, autistic children "do have the capacity for pretence if prompted," but they rarely exercise this capacity. Deprived, through mind-blindness, "of ready access to their own mental states, they are at the same time deprived of the main source of enjoyment present in normal pretending ... [and] do not find the activity [cognitively] rewarding" (264). And if, as cognitive psychologists argue, "the function of pretend-play is to exercise the imagination," then having engaged in so little "practice at imagining," autistic children perform at it less well than others (267).

Thus the very preliminary implication of applying what we know about ToM to our study of fiction is that our enjoyment of fiction may be predicated--at least in part--upon awareness of our "trying on," so to speak, mental states (of the characters) potentially available to us but at a given moment differing from our own. The cognitive rewards of reading fiction are thus aligned with the cognitive rewards of pretend play through a shared capacity to stimulate and develop the imagination.

Moreover, it is possible, to paraphrase a cognitive literary critic Reuven Tsur, that fiction exploits for aesthetic purposes cognitive capacities that were initially evolved for non-aesthetic purposes, such as making sense of one's social world. Works of fiction seem to engage and stimulate these cognitive capacities in a variety of particularly focused ways, and many of us come to enjoy such stimulation and need it as a steady supplement to our daily social interactions. To put it blandly, when we want to read some fiction, we may be craving for stimulation of our theory of mind.

This is not to say, of course, that this is the only thing that is going on, but still given how crucial mind-reading is for us as a profoundly and primarily social species, I don't think I would be overstating my point when I say that Theory of Mind makes literature as we know it possible. The very process of making sense of what we read appears to be grounded in our ability to invest the flimsy verbal constructions that we generously call "characters" with a potential for a variety of thoughts, feelings, and desires and then to look for the "cues" that would allow us to guess at their feelings and thus to predict their actions.

How much prompting do we need to begin doing this, that is, to begin attributing minds to fictional characters? Very little, it seems, since any indication that we are dealing with an entity capable of self-initiated behavior leads us to assume that this entity possesses thoughts, feelings, and desires, at least some of which we could intuit and interpret. Writers can exploit our constant readiness to posit a mind whenever we observe behavior as they experiment with the amount and kind of representation and interpretation of the characters' mental states that they supply themselves and that they expect us to supply. They may underinterpret their characters's mental states by not reporting their feelings at all, and thus forcing us to reconstruct those states based on our observation of the characters' physical actions, as did Ernest Hemingway. Or they may underinterpret their characters' mental states by reporting their feelings mostly as imagined by a third-person narrator, and thus forcing us to reconstruct those states by negotiating between those reports and our own observations of the characters' physical actions, as Henry James did to a rather striking effect in his Awkward Age . Or, they may pointedly reduce the observable behavior of the protagonists, forcing us to construct their mental states from a seemingly negligible external action, as Maurice Maeterlinck did in many of his plays (though, of course, the difference between the theatrical and the textual engagement of our Theory of Mind is a fascinating separate issue).

What is important to remember is that writers can afford to experiment with, say, underrepresenting their characters states of mind or external actions because we, the readers, make such underrepresenations emotionally cohesive thanks to our Theory of Mind. For example, Hemingway could engage in his deliberate undertelling because of our evolved cognitive tendency to assume that there must be a mental stance behind each act of behavior and our striving to represent to ourselves that possible mental stance even when the author has left us with the absolute minimum of necessary cues for constructing such a representation.

By imagining these hidden mental states, by following representations of other mental states throughout fictional narratives, and by comparing our interpretation of what the given character must be feeling at a given moment with the author's own interpretation, we thus deliver a rich stimulation to the cognitive adaptations comprising our Theory of Mind. We do so even when we completely misinterpret the author's intention and the characters' motivations. The fact of misinterpreting does not detract anything from the cognitive satisfaction allowed by the reading of fiction. To give a new twist to Michail Bakhtin's famous dictum, from a cognitive perspective, a misinterpretation of a character's state of mind is still very much an interpretation, a fully realized and thus pleasurable engagement of our Theory of Mind.


Let me turn now to one particular series of experiments investigating our mind-reading ability. Theory of Mind is formally defined as a second-order intentionality, that is, one agent attributes a certain state of mind to another agent, for example, You think that I am thirsty. The levels of intentionality, however, can "recurse" further back, for example, to the third level, as in the title of George Butte's recent book, I know that You Know that I know , or to the fourth level, as in "I believe that you think that I think that you have read some books on cognitive science lately." Daniel Dennett, who first discussed this recursiveness of the levels of intentionality in 1983, thought it could be in principle, infinite. A recent series of striking experiments reported by Robin Dunbar and his colleagues have suggested, however, that our cognitive architecture may discourage the proliferation of cultural narratives that involve "infinite" levels of intentionality.

            In those experiments, subjects were given two types of stories--one that involved a "simple account of a sequence of events in which 'A gave rise to B, which resulted in C, which in turn caused D, etc.'" and another which introduced "short vignettes on everyday experiences (someone wanting to date another person, someone wanting to persuade her boss to award a pay rise), . . . [all of which] contained between three and five levels of embedded intentionality." Subjects were then asked to complete a "series of questions graded by the levels of intentionality present in the story," including some factual questions "designed to check that any failures of intentionality questions were not simply due to failure to remember the material facts of the story." The results of the study were revealing: "Subjects had little problem with the factual causal reasoning story: error rates were approximately 5% across six levels of causal sequencing. Error rates on the mind-reading tasks were similar (5-10%) up to and including fourth-level intentionality, but rose dramatically to nearly 60% on fifth-order tasks." Cognitive scientists knew that this "failure on the mind-reading tasks [was] not simply a consequence of forgetting what happened, because subjects performed well on the memory-for-facts tasks embedded into the mind-reading questions" (Dunbar 241). The results thus suggest that people have marked difficulties processing stories which involve mind-reading above the fourth level.

To give a brief illustration of this phenomenon, consider the two following sentences. "I thought that you wanted her to think that we liked what she did at that meeting." Another sentence: "I thought that you liked that she believed that we appreciated her wanting to make him think that she was wrong about that meeting!" The second sentence sounds all but incomprehensible, even though it actually makes perfect sense if you spend some time mapping it out with pen and paper.  

Let's turn now to a very different example, Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway . Consider a randomly selected passage roughly halfway into Mrs. Dalloway , in which Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread come over to the house of Lady Bruton to write a letter to the editor of the Times , which, as Milicent Bruton hopes, would influence the future of British politics:

  And Miss Brush went out, came back; laid papers on the table; and Hugh produced his fountain pen; his silver fountain pen, which had done twenty years' service, he said, unscrewing the cap. It was still in perfect order; he had shown it to the makers; there was no reason, they said, why it should ever wear out; which was somehow to Hugh's credit, and to the credit of the sentiments which his pen expressed (so Richard Dalloway felt) as Hugh began carefully writing capital letters with rings round them in the margin, and thus marvelously reduced Lady Bruton's tangles to sense, to grammar such as the editor of the Times , Lady Bruton felt, watching the marvelous transformation, must respect. (110)

            What is going on in this passage? We are seemingly invited to deduce the excellence of Lady Bruton's civic ideas--put on paper by Hugh--first from the resilience of the pen that he uses, and then from the beauty of his "capital letters with rings around them on the margins." Of course, this reduction of lofty sentiments and superior analytic skills to mere artifacts, such as writing utensils and calligraphy, achieves just the opposite effect. By the end of the paragraph, we are ready to accept Richard Dalloway's secret view of the resulting epistle as "all stuffing and bunkum," but, most likely, a harmless bunkum.

            There are several ways to map this passage out in terms of the nested levels of intentionality. Here is one of them (to make sense of it, you have to remember that although Richard Dalloway does not buy the idea that Hugh's silver fountain pen and exquisite penmanship guarantee that the letter he is writing will express superior sentiments, he suspects that Lady Bruton does believe it): "Richard Dalloway supposes that Millicent Bruton thinks   that because Hugh says that the makers of the pen believe that it will never wear out, Hugh will be able to express the sentiments that she hopes   the editor of the Times will think of as deserving their attention." Here is another (it takes the parenthetical interjection "so Richard Dalloway felt" as a tacit acknowledgement that Richard's perspective is different from that of an implied omniscient narrator): "Woolf intends us to understand that Richard Dalloway supposes that Millicent Bruton thinks   that because Hugh says that the makers of the pen believe that it will never wear out, Hugh will be able to express the sentiments that she hopes   the editor of the Times will think of as deserving their attention." Depending on how we count, this passage thus embeds at least six levels of intentionality, and as such, it creates "a very significant load on most people's cognitive abilities" (Dunbar 240).

            When we try to articulate our perception of the cognitive challenge induced by this task of processing fifth-and sixth-level intentionality, we may say that Woolf's writing is difficult or even refuse to continue reading her novels. The personal aesthetics of individual readers thus could be at least in part grounded in the nuances of their individual mind-reading capacities. By saying this I do not mean to imply that if somebody "loves" or "hates" Woolf, it should tell us something about that person's general mind-reading "sophistication"--a cognitive literary analysis does not support such misguided value judgments. The nuances of each person's mind-reading profile are unique to that person, just as, for example, we all have the capacity for developing memories (unless that capacity has been clinically impaired), but each individual's actual memories are unique. My combination of memories serves me, and it would be meaningless to claim that it somehow serves me "better" than my friend's combination of memories serves her. At the same time, I see no particular value in celebrating the person's dislike of Woolf as the manifestation of his or her individual cognitive make-up. My teaching experience has shown that if we alert our students to the fact that Woolf tends to play this particular kind of cognitive "mind game" with her readers, it significantly eases their anxiety about "not getting" her prose and actually helps them to start enjoying her style.

My colleagues often ask me whether I could foresee the time when such a cognitive reading would supersede and render redundant the majority of other, more traditional approaches to Woolf. My answer to this is no. First of all, counting the levels of intentionality in Mrs. Dalloway does not constitute the cognitive approach to Woolf. It merely begins to explore one particular way--among numerous others--in which Woolf builds on and experiments with our ToM, and--to cast the net broader--in which fiction builds on and experiments with our other cognitive propensities. Many of these propensities, I feel safe saying, in spite of remarkable advances in the cognitive sciences during the last two decades, still remain unknown to us.

            Second, the on-going dialogue with the existing literary scholarship is not simply a matter of choice for scholars of literature interested in cognitive approaches. There is no such thing as a cognitive ability, such as ToM, free-floating "out there" in isolation from its human embodiment and historically and culturally concrete expression. Everything that we learn about Woolf's life and about the literary, cultural, and sociohistorical contexts of Mrs. Dalloway is thus potentially crucial for understanding why this particular woman, at this particular historical juncture, seeing herself as working both within and against a particular set of literary traditions, began to push beyond the boundaries of her reader's cognitive "zone of comfort" (that is, beyond the fourth level of intentionality).

            To give you just one, intentionally broad example of the importance of grounding our cognitive literary analysis in specific historical circumstances, let us consider Woolf's experimentation with multiple levels of intentionality in the context of the history of the evolution of the means of textual reproduction. It appears that a written culture is, on the whole, more able than an oral culture to support elaborately nested intentionality simply because a paragraph with eight levels of intentional embedment does not yield itself easily to memorization and subsequent oral transmission. That is, if I tell you a story that features eight levels of embedded intentionality, and you, for some reason, would want to repeat it to somebody else, it is very likely that you will drastically simplify it, scaling down its intentionality, say, to the fourth level.

It is thus highly unlikely that we would find many (or any) passages that require us to go beyond the fourth level of intentionality in oral epics such as Gilgamesh or The Iliad . Literary critic Walter Benjamin once observed that the "listener's naïve relationship to the storyteller is controlled by his interest in retaining what he is told. The cardinal point for the unaffected listener is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing the story" (97). The availability of the means of written transmission, such as print, enables the writer, for example, Woolf,   to experiment with the stories that could not have been remembered and reproduced within the oral culture and by so doing, to explore the hitherto dormant cognitive spaces.

            Of course, for a variety of aesthetic, personal, and financial reasons, not every author writing under the conditions of print will venture into such cognitive unknown. Even a cursory look through the best-selling mainstream fiction, from Belva Plain to Danielle Steel, confirms the continuous broad popular appeal of narratives working below the fourth level of intentional embedment. In other words, it is unlikely that a novel bought at a cash register at a grocery store would demand from its readers that they process paragraphs embedding five or six levels of nested mind-reading. A sentence like that may occasionally appear in such a novel but it would be presented as a joke, explicitly drawing attention to its own incomprehensibility. It is then the personal histories of individuals (here, individual writers and their audiences) that insure that, as Alan Richardson and Francis Steen have observed, the history of cognitive structures "is neither identical to nor separate from the culture they make possible" (3).

To conclude, Theory of Mind is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allow us to navigate our social world and also structure that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it delivers wonderfully rich stimulation to our Theory of Mind, which is constantly hungry for representations that seem to fit its input conditions. Some texts experiment with our ToM more intensely than others, and some readers appreciate that experimentation more than others, or appreciate some forms of that experimentation more than others, or appreciate certain forms of that experimentation at certain particular points in their lives, but not at others.

This fluidity leads to restate my earlier point that one should be very careful in advancing any theories of correlation between the adult reader's preferences for certain patterns of mind-reading in fictional texts and her emotional intelligence or any other personal characteristic. For example, people who love Woolf's prose tend to cluster around graduate programs in English, and that's as much as I can say about their overall personal profiles.)

Still, although the cognitive psychologists' investigation of ToM is very much a project-in-progress, enough carefully documented research is already available to literary scholars to begin asking such questions as, is it possible that literary narrative builds on our capacity for mind-reading but also tests its limits? How do different cultural-historical milieus encourage different literary explorations of this capacity? How do different genres? Speculative and tentative as the answers to these questions could only be at this point, they mark the possibility of a genuine interaction between cognitive psychology and literary studies, with both fields having much to offer to each other.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis . Princeton Univ. Press, 1991.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind . Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations . New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.

Brook Andrew and Don Ross. Daniel Dennett . Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002.

Butte, George. I know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie . Ohio State University Press, 2004.

Carruthers, Peter. "Autism as Mind-Blindness: An Elaboration and Partial Defense.", eds, Theories of Theories of Mind . Eds. Peter Carruthers and Peter K. Smith. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. 257-273.

Dennett Daniel. The Intentional Stance . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.

Dunbar, Robin. "On the Origin of the Human mind." Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition . Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000. 238-253.

Fish, Stanley. "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One." American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age . Ed. Ira Konigsberg. Univ. of Michigan, 1981. 102-115.

-----.   Is There a Text in this Class? Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980. 197-267.

Herman, David. "Scripts, Sequences, and Stories: Elements of a Postclassical Narratology." PMLA 112 (1997): 1046-59.

-----. "Regrounding Narratology: The Study of Narratively Organized Systems for Thinking." What is Narratology? Ed. Jan-Christoph Meister, Tom Kindt, and Hans-Harald Müller. Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming.

Miall, David S. and Don Kuiken. "The Form of Reading: Empirical Studies of Literariness." Poetics 25 (1998): 275-98.

Origgi Gloria and Dan Sperber. "Evolution, Communication and the Proper Function of Language." Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition . Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000. 140-169.

Richardson, Alan and Francis Steen. "Literature and the Cognitive Revolution: An Introduction." Poetics Today 23:1 (Spring 2002): 1-8.

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World . Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

----- . "Why and How to Take the Wheat and Leave the Chaff." SubStance 94/95 30.1&2 (2001): 178-198.

Sternberg, Meir. "How Narrativity Makes a Difference." Narrative 9.2 (January 2001): 115-122.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway . San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Parts of this paper have appeared in Lisa Zunshine, "Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness," Narrative 11.3 (2003): 270-291

By using the word "mechanism," I am not trying to smuggle the outdated "body as a machine" metaphor into literary studies. Tainted as this word is by its previous history, it can still function as a convenient shorthand designation for extremely complex cognitive processes.

For a discussion, see Leslie, 120-5; Carruthers, "Autism as Mind-Blindness," 262-3; and Spolsky, "Why and How."

Carruthers also sees decoupling as an unnecessarily complicated attempt to strengthen the mind-blindness theory of autism in the face of alternative explanation posited by such scholars as Alison Gopnik, Andrew Melzoff, and Uta Frith, who argue that "mind-blindness of autistic people is a consequence of some other basic deficit" (258). See Alison Gopnick and Andrew N. Melzoff, "The Role of Imitation in Understanding Persons and Developing a theory of mind," in Understanding Other Minds: Perspective from Autism , ed. S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flushberg, and D. J. Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Uta Frith, Autism: Explaining the Enigma (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). For Gopnik and Melzoff's suggestive alternative to the Theory of Mind theory--their "child as scientist" paradigm, see Gopnik and Melzoff, Words, Thoughts, and Theories (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996). For a response to the "child as scientist" paradigm, see Carruthers, "Simulation and Self-Knowledge: A Defense of the Theory-Theory," in Theories of Theories of Mind , 22-38.

Though the terms of this comparison may be too broad, still compare Carruthers's observation that autistic children do less pretending because they do not enjoy it, to David Miall and Don Kuiken's observation that the "less experienced readers seem less committed to the act of reading" (335). Enjoyment of mind-imagining, both in real life and in reading fiction, seems to come with practice.


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