Imagine you are overhearing a private conversation between a man and a woman at a bar. You’re listening, but so much of what's said remains unspoken. It’s almost as if their feelings aren’t expressed, that they're reading each other's minds. In fact, to understand their conversation, you'd have to engage in some
mindreading of your own. The truth is, we all are busy reading minds. It’s become part of everyday social interaction. Like the pair at the bar, you can interpret a conversation without listening to spoken words. But what makes mindreading not only possible, but normal?
In social psychology, our ability to discern someone else's inner life is called “theory of mind.” Theory of mind (abbreviated as ToM) “is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to the self and others.”¹ It’s about being aware of others’ thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, which is why ToM is considered a requisite for empathy. This means it allows you to realise when your friend is worried, when your husband's mind is stuck at the office, or when your coworker needs help with a project. You might assume to empathise is simply a matter of putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Perhaps, you reason, we simply extrapolate the details of others' minds by
reflecting on our own.
In his book Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Wilfrid Sellars first proposed what has become known as “theory-theory.” This theory proposed that understanding others’ mental states isn't a matter of simulating their experiences in our minds. Instead, this ability is mediated by so-called “naive theories,” which are acquired through “enculturation,” and one likely source of this enculturation is art.
Two recent studies have looked at whether narrative-based art can inculcate empathic intelligence. The first study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” measured variables in subjects' empathy scores after reading different types of written narrative — non-fiction, popular fiction, and literary fiction. For the test, the subject is shown a series of sets of eyes and then asked to choose the word that best describes what that person is feeling or thinking. The results of the study showed that those who read non-fiction and popular fiction were found to have no significant change in their empathy score. As the paper's title blares out, those who read literary fiction scored significantly higher on the empathy test.²
The results of the study also bolster the reader-response theory of literary criticism, which holds that the reader is an “active agent who completes the meaning of the work through interpretation” during the reading process.³ Faulkner's Sound and the Fury and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises — as different as they are — both demand complex engagement with theory of mind to understand the story.
Good literature requires that the reader “complete the meaning” of the work, while science and philosophy both strongly suggest that reading has a positive impact on our emotional intelligence. But millennials, for better or worse, consume relatively little of what we think of as traditional literature, while maintaining a steady diet of digital media — tweets and clips, vines (RIP) and Netflix.⁴ (To be fair, since its invention, the young have always loved TV; a generation or so ago, it was called Must-See and MTV.)
Nowadays we are in the midst of a media boom, or glut, some might say, binging and purging as the urge to be entertained consumes us. The shows are often structured like epic feature films told over several seasons (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Narcos). Some offer a voyeuristic peek into private bedrooms (Flaked, Easy, Love), while others depict dystopian near-future scenarios (Black Mirror, Westworld). Can these series replace literature? Literature has the power to improve our theory of mind, and by extension, deepen our empathy and expand our character — but does television? Can it be anything more than entertainment, spectacle, and consumption? Can Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, Law & Order, or reruns of Friends make you more empathetic?
Intuition says probably not. Traditionally, television hasn't been a sophisticated medium, and several of its most enduring features appear antithetical to what constitutes great literature: namely, lack of continuity, lack of character growth, and lack of story closure.