Reading minds seems magical and likely improbable if you have not studied Psychology, maybe. However, it is not so untouchable as it appears in the first instance. There is more to reading a mind that makes is susceptible for really happening.
This is more about how to read literature and how we read fictional minds. Our minds can cope with fictional characters making us loving or hating them, and in the same way we can understand their train of thoughts, we can understand a person’s mind and read it. Or at least, this is how I see things.
Cognitive poetics is the name of the science that deals with linguistics and cognitive science around explaining literary readings, how we read, how we get to immerse in reading and live through any characters eye, understanding it and even reading its mind, thinking what he/she will do next.
Theory of Mind (ToM) means that we possess an assumption that the other person has a conscious mind just like ours. Our ability to assume ToM in other persons – and act and speak accordingly – has been called mind reading or mind modelling.
Folk psychology is an ability to think of the mind states of others. Folk psychology is our ability to make predictions about what’s on other’s minds and Theory of Mind is one explanation for how we carry out that ability.
You will notice that theory of mind is missing a “the” ahead of it. In academic circles, it is often referred to as the theory-theory. That’s because this term doesn’t refer to a theory on the mind. It refers to how we develop theories about other people’s minds – what they may be thinking, how they may be feeling, what they may do next. We make these assumptions easily, without even recognizing that we are doing something fundamentally amazing: we are making predictions about what is going on in other people’s heads and, even more amazingly, these predictions often prove correct.
In everyday life, we run our ToM whenever we encounter others. We might also run a ToM when we talk to a cat or a dog. If you swear at you computer, or shout at your car, or call out at a ball rolling towards a goal on a sports pitch, or if you ever imagine an animal or inanimate object as being personified in any way – in all these situations, you are raising these objects towards the level of person-ness. You are applying your ToM to them, so that they become persons, to a greater or lesser extent. And we have been doing this ever since we were young. Do you remember Cinderella, speaking to the birds, and mouses and all animal creatures? What about The Beauty and the Beast, where the tea pot and the tea cup have eyes and thoughts and minds and personalities?
How to read a mind in this article, rather tries to explain what happens when you read a novel or a short story – or in fact any sort of narrative – and you meet the people who live within those pages. However, the ways we regard people in real life are basically the same as the ways we regard fictional people. There is no “special module” in the brain that does literature, just as there is no special module that does language: our language capacity is built on our embodied capacities and perceptions. Language is an extension of our bodied experience.
Mind reading is made up of several tools called concepts, that help us create and imagine the person-ness and realness of that character we read about.
The first tool is the concept of enactors. An enactor is a version of a character in a novel or a fiction narrative. You might get an early enactor of a character, and a later enactor (who knows different things, has lived through different events, and has developed, all in ways that you have to keep track of as a reader). We have a capacity for imagining different worlds, each of which is contained with different enactors. Usually, the more enactors a character has, the richer it is and the more personal it becomes to you, and that is how you get to build a relationship with that story or book.
Another tool for mind reading is the concept of impersonation. In 1927, the novelist E.M. Forster differentiated “flat” and “round” characters in fiction. And those categories even apply, to real life persons. We know people with prominent personalities and people with less of a display of a personality, more flat, dull, not interesting, not someone you can recall easy. Round characters possess richness and depth and they are depicted in vivid descriptions, they are presented in a series of compelling situations, they get to have various, different enactors. Flat characters are those that you cannot really remember. Impersonation refers to the fact that a character in a novel has become so rich and psychologised as to have attained “person-ness”.
Determining whether a fictional character has reached a level of impersonation is, of course not an entirely objective matter. Impersonation is something that you do with a text. Our sense of person-ness seems to be rather emotional and experiential than based on any sorts of criteria we have in mind.
Another tool in reading minds is the concept of portability. That is, when we create such a relationship with the fictional character that we tend to make believe that he/she is taken out from the real world, that it can exist and it exists.
Sometimes you become lost in a book. Sometimes you are so immersed, absorbed in it that you don’t notice distractions back in the world where your body has been left behind. These experiences are mostly described in terms of transportation: “I was carried away.”, “I was miles away.”, “I was buried in the book.”. The reading experience of a fictional mind and the world he/she/it inhabits is partly a matter of the imposition of the text and partly a matter of the disposition of the reader. The meanings and feelings and experiences that you bring when you read are all brought to bear in your mind-modelling of a character. So, the character is not built up, word by word, from nothing: this would result in very flat characters.
The rich modelling that you provide means that characters start off with the equivalent of your consciousness, your sense of human perception, emotion and ethics, your embodiment. To start with, every character is you, until the text directs you into describing how they are different. One reason that readers can feel intensely moved or affected emotionally by fictional worlds is precisely this sense that they have committed a part of their own identity and consciousness to that world.
In cognitive linguistics, Ray Gibbs has talked about concepts and meanings being “soft-assembled” for the job at hand. It is an approach to language and mind that emphasizes the provisional, flexible, contingent and situation-dependency of experience. An apple is an apple unless you re-conceptualize it as a missile, an ornament, a symbol of poisoning, a symbol of sin, a computer trademark, a record company or as Newton’s spur to inspiration.
Everything we can think of is as adaptable as this. This soft-assembly goes for mind as well. When we encounter a literary character, we soft-assemble them in all the ways that we have explored above. Together with our mind-modelled sense of the author’s intentions, we use the text to model a fictional mind. The assembled model remains provisional while we are reading: we use it as a means of getting through the fictional world. Some of those minds “harden up” if they attain impersonation, portability etc.
This understanding of other minds applies to your own mind. You too are soft-assembled for each situation in which you find yourself. You have a sense of your own stability, which allows you to say you have “done things our of characters” or “not be yourself”. But the fact that you can think and do these things demonstrates the flexible and adaptable nature of your personality. Empathetic literary reading demonstrates how adaptable your own mind can be.
Understanding how to read a mind, then, is the equivalent of understanding how to read your own mind. This will certainly make you a more self-aware person, a person with so much more empathy and highly emotionally intelligent.
Keep reading books and keep reading minds. That is how you start to read a mind.