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Cognitive science is hot right now, and in recent years authors have endeavored to apply its name, if not its methods, to an ever-growing variety of areas. This book is the latest foray into the nascent field of cognitive cultural studies, which explores literature, poetry, theater, song, and film through the lens of cognitive science. The last few years have seen the publication of several serious academic books in this area--e.g., by Brian Boyd, David Herman, and a couple by our author Lisa Zunshine. The present book is a bit lighter and more narrowly focused than these.
The broad subject of Getting Inside Your Head is the application of the theory of mind (or mindreading, to put it less contentiously) to the understanding of artistic and humanistic artifacts. Mindreading is the capacity of humans (and, perhaps, some non-human animals) to impute mental states to others in the explanation and prediction of their behavior. Mindreading enables one to make sense of another, to recognize her point of view and empathize with her plight. The capacity for mindreading is widely considered a prerequisite for social interaction and coordination. Philosophers, developmental psychologists, primatologists, psychopathologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, among others, have generated an enormous body of literature on this topic since at least the 1970s, when Premack and Woodruff published their groundbreaking paper on the chimpanzee theory of mind. (Zunshine incorrectly notes that it has become a major topic only over the last five years. Perhaps that is true of its use in cultural studies.)
Zunshine begins by describing two misconceptions about mindreading. The first misconception is that mindreading is largely conscious. Though we sometimes do exert a lot of mental energy consciously divining what others think, for the most part our understanding of others is intuitive and unconscious. Cognitive scientists often speak of mindreading as a skill used to navigate through a social environment, and the analogy to moving through an environment is apt. Mindreading, like walking, is something we don't usually pay much attention to unless special circumstances require it. They become second nature for those who are able to do them. Furthermore, both are very complex abilities, as is clear by how enormously difficult it is to construct an autonomous robot for a rough terrain or an artificial intelligence system to pass the Turing Test. That we seem able to understand others so effortlessly and unawares suggests that we must be pretty good at it, for we typically only become aware of it when we slip or trip in our predictions of another's behavior. However, this conflicts somewhat with Zunshine's second misconception about mindreading: when we read minds we do so correctly. As Zunshine notes, mindreading falls well short of telepathy. No one would seriously argue that we do not sometimes misread others. After all, people lie and mislead others enough that only the completely gullible could disagree that suspicion is sometimes warranted. But, from the possibility of error, Zunshine draws an overly pessimistic conclusion: our mindreading interpretations "range from being completely wrong to only approximately correct," and "any act of mind reading is fraught with possibilities for miscommunication and misinterpretation." One might wonder whether mindreading would be largely unconscious were it really this subject to error. If our capacity for walking were so fraught with the possibility of slipping and tripping it would likely cease to be largely unconscious. Perhaps the respective landscapes are radically different; the social environment is so much more complex than the earth's geography that the possibility of error is so much greater. Then being approximately correct would have to be good enough. That would still be pretty good.
Zunshine next introduces a pair of assumptions that relate mindreading and human culture. First, Zunshine assumes that we are "greedy mind readers"--that is, that our capacity for mindreading is "promiscuous, voracious, and proactive." We cannot help but to see people as agents capable of intentional behavior. Our mindreading system is constantly being activated in social settings and pretty much any time we think about others as agents, including in hypothetical and imaginary circumstances. Moreover, our mindreading system has a hair trigger and can be activated by anything--an animal, puppet, weather pattern, machine, cartoon of geometrical shapes moving about in a space--that exhibits agent-like behavior. So strong is our need to engage in mindreading that we are prodigious consumers and producers of artifacts that exercise it. Zunshine proposes that humans have developed a culture of greedy mind readers to feed our insatiable mind-reading cravings. The products of this culture of greedy mind readers are artistic and humanistic artifacts--e.g., fictional narratives, paintings and sculptures, dances, musical compositions, etc. Second, Zunshine asserts that we consider bodies (and especially faces) to be both the best and the worst sources of information about another's mental states. Our mindreading system is attuned to recognizing subtle cues--facial expressions; tones of voice; blushing, sweating, and crying; gaze direction and deflection; and manual gestures--that help in the interpretation of behavior. Sometimes these are the only clues available. However, we are also aware, says Zunshine, that people are capable of performing their body language in order to give the impression that they have certain thoughts and feelings. And it's not just in poker games that people perform their body language; it's commonly employed in business negotiations, political campaigning, and romantic courtship--pretty much any circumstance in which one wishes to conceal one's thoughts and feelings. So, says Zunshine, while we know that the body is the best source of information about what another thinks and feels, we are also aware that it can mislead.
Zunshine is overly impressed by these cases of deceptive impression management, and perhaps this is a consequence of her overall skepticism about the accuracy of our mindreading capacity. In any event, as Zunshine sees things, we are active and voracious mindreaders who are unconsciously aware that body language is not perfectly reliable, but since body language is the best source of information about another's mental states we have no choice but to rely on it with caution. The ideal scenario would be one in which the mindreader could be confident that the body language exhibited by an individual was not being performed. Zunshine calls such an occasion a moment of embodied transparency. She contends that moments of embodied transparency are very rare in ordinary life, especially when they reveal a person's thoughts and feelings in a complex social situation. (There is an inverse relationship between social complexity and embodied transparency. The more complex the social situation, the greater the number of background assumptions at play, and thus the greater the probability of deception.) Moments of embodied transparency, if they occurred, would be very attractive to the greedy mindreader, much like salty, sweet, and fatty foods are to our taste buds.
Though it is rare in ordinary life, embodied transparency is more common in fictional narratives and works of art. According to Zunshine, the presence of embodied transparency in fictional and artistic works helps to explain their very existence, since these forms often offer nourishing moments of pure mindreading to their consumers. Fictional narratives provide the perfect context for embodied transparency, since the skilled author can artfully control the background assumptions. Narrative techniques, like the use of an omniscient narrator, give the reader the illusion of transparency by fixing the contextual factors that might make one skeptical of body language in ordinary situations. (The possibility that the narrator is not being transparent is a delicious complication, and one not addressed at length in the present book. The reader is encouraged to read Zunshine's earlier book, Why We Read Fiction.) Zunshine proposes general three rules for constructing moments of embodied transparency in fictional narratives. The first is contrast: the transparency of a character should stand out against a background of non-transparency in other characters (or in the target character at other moments). The second is transience: the moment of embodied transparency must be short to be believable. If it carries on for too long it risks being interpreted as performance. The third is restraint: the character should attempt to conceal his feelings and thoughts. One who does not attempt to conceal his thoughts and feelings may come across as either shallow or duplicitous. The rules, while satisfied in most moments of embodied transparency, are not absolute. When they are violated it is usually to great effect.
The rest of the book explores the use of embodied transparency across numerous mediums and genres. Zunshine uses the concept of embodied transparency to make an interesting observation about the use of theaters, sports arenas, racetracks, in film and literature--places where people go to observe some event and to be observed. Another chapter argues that film is a perfect medium for embodied transparency. Not only does film enable the viewer special (and oversized) access to a character's facial expressions, but it can also use visual juxtapositions to help fix the background assumptions. Film is also well suited to show restraint. The chapters on mockumentaries and reality television put embodied transparency to intriguing use. Cringe-inducing embodied transparency is a staple of these genres, and Zunshine's analysis plausibly makes sense of how reality television in particular is so irresistible to some and horrifying to others. Later chapters overlay the concept of embodied transparency on the contrasting notions of absorption and theatricality, developed by art historian Michael Fried to describe styles of painting popular among early to mid 17th century French artists. The French artist Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, for example, painted scenes of ordinary people engaged in card-playing and other simple amusements. What is especially distinctive about these scenes is that the subjects appear completely absorbed in their activity, unaware of the presence of the viewer. Such moments are perfect examples of embodied transparency, as the subjects' body language, in the absence of a known viewer, cannot be construed as performance. Absorptive paintings contrast with theatrical paintings that depict scenes in ways that are self-conscious of their being viewed. These theatrical settings perform the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. While Zunshine is able to connect her concept to Fried's notions of absorption and theatricality, the connection fails to deliver a broader understanding of painting (and the visual arts as a whole) in relation to mindreading. Part of the problem is that the notions of absorption and theatricality played out during a limited period of time, and applies mainly to a narrow genre of painting. Another is that many artworks don't depict or engage directly with bodies. That said, theorists of art--even abstract art--would benefit greatly from the kind of work being done at the intersection of cognitive science and cultural studies.
Zunshine's book is an entertaining read and is intended for a wide audience. Zunshine's examples are drawn from a variety of sources, some classic (e.g., the novels of Jane Austen and Henry Fielding) and some contemporary (such as Fight Club, Guys and Dolls, and The Office). Several readers may even blush at the discussion of a certain bawdy medieval French tale. For those looking to read more about the topics discussed in the book, the endnotes are loaded with academic references. While the book is rather short at about 180 pages, one senses by the end that it could have been even shorter. The concept of embodied transparency is very interesting, but it struck this reader as insufficiently rich to sustain a full monograph.
© 2014 Ray Rennard
Ray Rennard is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Pacific.