Friday, April 25, 2014

The Short Story and Theory of Mind: Some Preliminary Remarks


While working on a keynote presentation I am scheduled to make at the Alice Munro Symposium next month in Ottawa (My colleague Robert Thacker will also give a keynote, and a number of Munro experts and other Canadian scholars will make presentations),  I have been reading Keith Oatley's Such Stuff as Dreams and Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction, as well as a thick wad of research reports by cognitive psychologists from Canada and the U.S. on so-called Theory of Mind. 

If you are not familiar with the concept, Theory of Mind (sometimes unfortunately shortened to ToM) is not really a "theory" of mind, but rather refers to the ability humans have to formulate theories about the minds of others.  It seems to be a human characteristic developed by children sometime during the third year of life. Before the development of this ability, children do not know that other people have minds. We always knew, didn't we, that all little children are egomaniacs.

The classic experiment involves children watching puppets in a scene in which one puppet puts a toy in a red box and then leaves the room.  Another puppet removes the toy and puts it in a blue box.  When the first puppet comes back in, the children watching the scene are asked to predict where the puppet will look for the object.  Before the age of four, children predict that the puppet will look in the blue box, for that is where they know the toy is and thus where they assume the puppet thinks it is also.  After the age of four, the children predict that the puppet will look in the red box, for they know that the puppet doesn't know that the object has been moved. In other words, they now have the ability to formulate a theory that the puppet has a mind. I apologize to the cognitive psychologists who have formulated this if I have oversimplified or misrepresented.

A recent study that received quite a bit of popular press in the U.S. was reported by psychologists at the New School for Social Research in the Oct, 2013 issue of Science.  I found the report at www.sciencemag.org under the title "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind";  the researchers are David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. With a little extra research on the Internet, I was able to find the Supplementary material for the report, which detailed the methodology and the materials used.  I was particularly interested in the fact that one of the "literary" stories used in the study was Alice Munro's "Corrie," on which I have posted, and which has received quite a bit of response on this blog. 

I also discovered that the "popular" fiction the researchers used to juxtapose against "Corrie" was a romance story by Rosamunde Pilcher entitled "Lalla," from her collection Love Stories. (Other literary stories are from the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Award Stories; other popular stories are from Popular Fiction: An Anthology. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand.  In the literary vs. popular test, in addition to "Corrie," they used Sam Ruddick's "Leak" and Wendell Berry's "Nothing Living Lives Alone."  For the popular, they used "Space Jockey" by Robert Heinlein, "Too Many Have Lived" by Dashiell Hammett, as well as "Lalla" Rosamunde Pilcher.

I will talk a bit about "Corrie" and Theory of Mind in my presentation at Ottawa next month, and so will not duplicate that discussion here.  However, I do want to make some suggestions about how the notion of Theory of Mind may be related to the thesis I try to develop in the first chapter of my book I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies.  (I posted that first chapter a few months ago on this blog if you are interested in looking at it.) Basically, I suggest that Frank O'Connor's concept in his book The Lonely Voice about the short story's focus on human isolation and loneliness is the primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union.

It seems to me that the Theory of Mind hypothesis that before the age of four the child has no notion that others have minds is related to Jean Piaget's theory that  the young baby itself constitutes its sole reality because the baby's universe contains no permanent object, no “It” and therefore no “I” except the total and unconscious egocentric self. Piaget tells us that the baby's objectless universe is made up of "shifting and unsubstantial `tableaux’ that appear and are then totally reabsorbed." However, during the second year of life, a kind of "Copernican revolution" takes place in the child, a general decentering process during which the child begins to perceive the self as an object in a universe made up of permanent objects, a universe in which causality is localized in space and objectified in things.  Although Piaget's theory has been questioned in recent years, I like its explanatory power.

In my book, I correlate Piaget's theory with the concepts of Martin Buber, who identifies the  "separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it... Whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word I-It, the word of separation, has been spoken."  This fall from at-oneness, dramatized in the Genesis story of the Fall and the story of Cain and Abel, is, it seems to me, related to the discovery of Theory of Mind children experience after their third year—that there are other minds out there that can never be known.

Maybe it is just because I am so committed to the underrated short story that I am always trying to make a case for its importance, but it seems to me that the story that is short—which is a primary narrative form, not a derivative narrative form like the novel—came into being as the primary means by which human beings, confronting the realization that they can never know the mind of the other and thus are forever trapped within their solipsistic isolation, try to identify with the other.  Frank O'Connor uses one of the earliest "modern" short stories, Gogol's "The Overcoat," as an example of the thematizing of this notion, which is why I use the plaintive cry Akakey Akakievich makes to his colleague—"I Am Your Brother"—as the title of my most recent book.

H. Porter Abbot, my colleague at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who uses Bartleby as an example, focuses on fictional minds that cannot be read, not only by characters in the story world but also by readers in the actual world. When my students encountered a character whose behavior just did not make sense to them, for example Bartleby's stubborn preference "not to", Kurtz's journey into the heart of darkness, Gatsby's passion for the silly Daisy—they simply said, "they must be crazy."  As Ginger Nut, like my students, puts it, "he's a little luny."  This, of course, is the easy evasion of the challenge to know the other that seems mysteriously unknowable.

I am not sure it is mere coincidence that the American writer often credited with first recognizing the unique characteristics of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, was concerned with the mystery of motivation and the efforts human beings make to try to project themselves into the mind of the other.  Poe's stories about the mysteries of what makes people do the strange, contrary things they do, focus on what he calls "the perverse."   "The Imp of the Perverse" begins in an essay format describing a human propensity—what the author calls a "prima mobilia of the human soul"--previously ignored because there seems to be no reason for it, either in a divine or a human plan. 

The writer argues that if one proceeded à posteriori from observable evidence, rather than à priori from previous assumptions about God's plan, thinkers would have to admit "an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term."  He then describes the principle as a "mobile without motive, a motive not motivirit."  However, more than acting without a comprehensible object or motive, the principle involves acting precisely because one should not.  This radical impulse fascinates Poe because it cannot be broken down any further; it evades analysis by its very elementary nature. He explores the concept further in "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The effort to project the self into the mind of the other can best be seen in "The Purloined Letter," in which Poe's detective Dupin gives an example of the school boy who is a master at playing the game of "even and odd"--a guessing game in which one holds a number of marbles in his hand and asks someone to guess whether they are even or odd in number.  The boy succeeds in guessing by projecting himself into the one holding the marbles, identifying with the opponent's intellect.  He says he fashions the expression of his face in accordance with the face of the opponent and then waits to see what thoughts come to him. 

In Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley cites Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes's use of the same technique: "I put myself in the man's place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances."  Oatley also cites G. K. Chesterton's  Father Brown, who says: "When  I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done, I always realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions, but not under others."

I suppose I could be accused of being obsessed with this basic theme of the short story, for I have been exploring it since my first published article, a piece entitled "The Difficulty of Loving in Eudora Welty's 'A Visit of Charity'."  Maybe so.  But this new research on Theory of Mind intrigues me.  Perhaps I can use it to further make my case that the short story is a very importance literary form—a form that Jorge Luis Borges once referred to as "essential."

I am especially interested in this research that seems to argue for the importance of fiction in light of the fact that most states in the U.S. are now adopting the so-called "Common Core," which has reduced the importance of reading fiction in favor of requiring students read more nonfiction.


More about this later.  And more about Alice Munro when I get back from Canada.

1 comment:

sloopie72 said...

Aha! I just took a (very short, very introductory) MOOC (online course) on cognitive poetics, primarily the Theory of Mind and its application to literature; I'd never heard of this before. Wonderful stuff, I'm looking forward to seeing your future comments.

(Karen Carlson)