Does Reading Give Us Access to Other People’s Minds?

Source: The Reading Brain

Jason Tougaw

In her book The Shaking WomanSiri Hustvedt delights in reading’s power to recast her “internal narrator”:

The closest we can get to . . . entrance into another person’s psyche is through reading. Reading is the mental arena where different thought styles, tough and tender, and the ideas generated by them become more apparent. We have access to a stranger’s internal narrator. Reading, after all, is a way of living inside another person’s words. His or her voice becomes my narrator for the duration. Of course, I retain my own critical faculties, pausing to say to myself, Yes, he’s right about that or No, he’s forgotten this point entirely or That’s a clichéd character, but the more compelling the voice on the page is, the more I lose my own. I am seduced and give myself up to the other person’s words.

 AmirReza Fardad
Source: Source: AmirReza Fardad

Of course, reading doesn’t simply give us access to “another person’s psyche.” Hustvedt argues it’s as close as we get, without the onus to define how close that might be. She describes the capacity of a writer’s voice to become her narrator, to mix with the stream of her consciousness, to give her access to unfamiliar “thought styles” that may lead to new ideas, new ways of understanding the world—and, ultimately, living with it.

Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene argues that “the human brain never evolved for reading. . . .  The only evolution was cultural—reading itself progressively evolved toward a form adapted to our brain circuits.” Reading is a human invention, made possible by pre-existing brain systems devoted to representing shapes, sound, and speech.  Nonetheless, Dehaene acknowledges that “an exponential number of cultural forms can arise from the multiple combinations of restricted selection of fundamental traits.” In other words, the malleability of the brain’s representational systems enables the continuous evolution of new forms of representation.

The literary wing of the so-called “neurohumanities” has been busy with researchers and theorists investigating what it might mean to “live inside another’s words” and the variations of reading possible within the physiological constraints Dehaene describes. Three books in particular have made a splash: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (2006), Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007), and Blakey Vermeule’s Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (2009). The titles of these books represent the clarity of their purposes and their shared interests in so-called “mind reading“–how we know what another person thinks and feels, or how literature trains us to guess.

Zunshine draws on theory of mind research in cognitive science to argue that literary texts satisfy, create, and test “cognitive cravings,” focusing mostly on cognitive capacities to imagine other people’s mental experiences—and the centrality of doing so to navigating social relations. She makes a strong argument that writers like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen offer a kind of cognitive exercise, pushing us to practice levels of “cognitiive embedment”–for example, she realized that he thought she was laughing inside, and this worried her.” We practice imagining each other imagining each other’s minds.

Keen emphasizes neuro-cognitive research—especially the fMRI studies of Tania Singer—that link empathy to so-called mirror neurons. Responding to influential research on empathy and mirror systems by Tania Singer, she observes that “Singer and her colleagues conclude that empathy is mediated by the part of the pain network associated with pain’s affective qualities, but not its sensory qualities.” In other words, we can imagine other people’s pain, but we can’t feel it. As a result, Keen’s conclusions are multifarious—and not entirely rosy: It may be easier to empathize with fictional characters that real people; novelists (and writers and artists in general) may be more empathetic than the general population; empathetic responses occur more readily in response to negative emotions; empathy does not necessarily lead to altruism or action; and empathy can lead to an aversive response as well as a sympathetic one.

Vermeule focuses on literary characters, as “tools to think with”: “Literary narratives prove us and make us worry about what it is to interact with fictional people. And we should worry, because interacting with fictional people turns out to be a central cognitive preoccupation, one that exposes many of the aspects of how our minds work.” Vermeule’s “fictional people” include characters like Clarissa Dalloway or Humbert Humbert, but also representations of actual people we don’t know like Barack Obama or Caitlyn Jenner and people we do know, even those we’re intimate with. When we imagine other people’s mental lives, we create a kind of productive fiction. Literature, she argues, makes us attentive to forms of representation that shape the ways we live. If we don’t recognize the role of representation in the shaping of social relations we will mistake our mental reproductions of others for “the real properties” of those people, rather than recognizing the cognitive filters that enable us to relate to them.

Some of this research has gotten a lot of press—for example, Natalie Phillips’s fMRI research on reading Jane Austen, featured on NPR, the Huffington Post, and Salon well before it was published in journals. Phillips conducted her research on a fellowship at Stanford, which touted it with the headline “This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen.” Phillips’s research is a multi-disciplinary collaboration—whose process mirrors its premises with a productive irony Austen might appreciate. She’s interested in the limits of attention, studying Austen’s fiction to make arguments about how it challenges readers to adopt multiple perspectives that test those limits.

Samantha Holmsworth, a neuroimaging expert on the project, describes the challenges: “We were all interested, but working at the edge of our capacity to understand even 10 percent of what each other were saying”—an estimate revised to 30% in an academic article that finally fleshed out the results that had received so much preliminary hype. Phillips presents her research with the enthusiasm of hypothesis that requires further study. In short, close reading (attending to questions about form) and pleasure reading (getting lost in a book) involve related but different forms of representation.

The “neural signatures” involved multiple brain systems, and Phillips envisions future research using a “functional connectivity” approach to measure “synchronous patterns that emerge in parallel across the brain and investigates how these connections change as we engage stimulus over time.” Close reading seems to initiate more widespread activity than pleasure reading, including the somatosensory cortex and motor cortex—areas involved in space and movement.

This is nascent research, and its hypotheses are tentative. That seems appropriate. If Jane Austen abhorred anything, it was too definitive a conclusion. In Austen, mind reading is always misreading.


Jason Tougaw is the author of The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience (Yale UP) and The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (Dzanc Books).