Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.


Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.


As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” ( Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.


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