My essay emphasizes the social aspect of our engagement with fictional narratives by drawing on cognitive scientists' research into “theory of mind,” also known as “mind reading”: our evolved adaptation for explaining people's behavior in terms of their mental states, such as thoughts, desires, feelings, and intentions. I introduce the term “sociocognitive complexity” to describe patterns of embedment of mental states within mental states in fiction and discuss the role of social situations featuring third-level embedment—a mind within a mind within a mind—in prose fiction, drama, and narrative poetry. I further explain that writers make some characters more “cognitively complex” than others (that is, capable of embedding more mental states) and suggest that approaching fiction in terms of its sociocognitive complexity is ultimately a historicist inquiry. That is, if we want to understand what factors influence a writer's decision about which characters will carry on complex mind-reading reflections and which will have to settle for simpler ones, we have to look into historically contingent genre conventions and contemporary ideological preoccupations of the society. I conclude by speculating about the cultural packaging of sociocognitive complexity and about the levels of sociocognitive complexity that we expect from and reward in our students' papers.
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Lisa Zunshine; Sociocognitive Complexity. Novel 1 May 2012; 45 (1): 13–18. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1541306
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