Is our TV addiction turning us into zombies devoid of real feelings?
 Or can clever and complex series make us more in tune with the inner lives of others? Eric James Bain reflects on the topic. 


Text by Eric James Bain


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.


For fun, let's imagine Kafka being adapted for television. If Kafka's The Metamorphosis was developed into a long-running series, what would that look like? Each week Gregor Samsa would try and fail to turn himself back into a man. What about The Trial? The shadowy conspiracy against K could never end, nor could it ever fully be revealed. K's trial would be “to be continued...” week after week, year after year, the meaning derived from its conclusion never revealed. Every series, after all, hopes to makeat least five seasons — the minimum for syndication.

TV, even prestige TV, requires spectacle, i.e. sex and violence. The book The Man in the High Castle is quite a different animal from the Amazon series of the same name. In both, the Allies lost World War II to the Axis powers. The show, while quite good, is nonetheless busy staging shootouts, assassination attempts, and operatic gestures, such as a Japanese officer's public suicide in occupied San Francisco. By contrast, the book contents itself with philosophical meditations.

Traditionally, television has resisted seriality and closure. Episodes are designed to be watched out of order. The principle is that every episode is someone's first episode. Closure has always been rare. Most TV series, until very recently, like horses in the desert, went on indefinitely and then suddenly collapsed due to falling ratings. And of course, each individual episode resets to the status quo of the show’s premise. No one grows, learns, or changes. So, can a television show be great art, or, as Marshall McLuhan said, is the medium the message?

 A later study — “Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind” — expanded this inquiry of television, asking if the newest prestige television shows could engage the viewer’s empathy in the same way as a great work of literature, like Anna Karenina. This study modelled itself closely on the first, but extended the question to different forms of television narrative — including documentary series, sitcoms, procedurals, and so-called “prestige-format” series.

 These prestige dramas have been called “novelistic.”
 Critics routinely declared The Wire as Dickensian, to the point where this turn of phrase was mocked within the actual show. Mad Men, compared to and inspired by John Cheever's short stories and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, is as much about what it means to be an artist in a capitalist society as it is about the transformations and upheavals of the 1960s. Breaking Bad is a modern-day Crime and Punishment set in the suburbs of New Mexico. These prestige series share literary fiction's fundamental attentiveness to change at the individual and societal level. Its outcomes may be ambiguous or unresolved, but an irrevocable shift in understanding occurs. From the beginning, there is a fixed end-game that will provide closure for the prior hours, promising an epiphany, however unconscious it might be. But do these series, as engaging and well-produced as they are, engage our theory of mind at a high level and improve empathy? 

The results of the second study paralleled those in the previous study; those watching “prestige-format” dramas scored higher on their empathy tests, indicating that such shows can indeed aid viewers in developing theory of mind. According to the second test’s abstract, “These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives, may facilitate the understanding of others’ minds.”

 So what happens in the bathing glow of your laptop when it's open on Netflix? Probably the same thing, or something similar, that happens late at night in bed with a book
light. We live deeply through the lives of our favourite
characters, whatever the medium, and great television
appears to have the potential to affect us in ways similar to a great work of literature. 

Remember that mysterious conversation from the bar? It’s actually a scene from “The Suitcase,” an episode of Mad Men.The careful viewer, armed with a decent theory of mind, can read a lot into this heart-to-heart between Don Draper and his creative protégé, Peggy Olsen. It might even be good for you. But, please don’t toss that Tolstoy just yet; he can still teach you a thing or two. 



1. Alvin I. Goldman, "Theory of Mind," in Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, ed. Eric Margolis, et al. (Oxford University Press, 2012).

2. If you're curious, an interactive version of the test, referred to as "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test," developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, is available to take online at

3. Rachel Lee Rubin, Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture (NYU Press, 2014).

4. Christopher Ingraham, "The Long, Steady Decline of Literary Reading," The Washington Post (Sept 7, 2016).