Monday, April 5, 2010

Phoebe and Rachel in the 18th Century

I have learned from my daughter, a college English professor who specializes in the 18th century, that the period  has much to teach us about satire, blogging, coffee-shops, popular music, and popular culture of all kinds. And vice versa. Now, another English professor of 18th century literature introduces the concept that reading fiction (and following the story) has much to teach us about the evolution of human intelligence.

According to the NY Times article linked here, "the layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking - of mind reading - is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill." The article goes on to talk about the application of science not only to insights into individual texts but to fundamental questions about literature itself. "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?"

The article discusses Professor Zunshine's interest in the "theory of mind" which involves one person's ability to interpret another person's mental state and to pinpoint the sources of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.

Humans, apparently, are generally able to keep track of three different mental states at a time. Fiction can challenge us to do more than that, and provides a neurological and biological satisfaction in our ability to perceive and decode misinterpretations. Jane Austen's novels are cited as an example of the satisfaction of following and understanding misinterpretations through a story.

William Flesch, a researcher from Brandeis University, explains that this direction of research can help explain how altruism evolved despite our "selfish genes".  He call fictional heros "'altruistic punishers,'" people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain." Nature, he feels, gives us a pleasing sense of outrage at cheaters, and delight when they are punished. We enjoy fiction, he believes, because it is "teeming with altruistic punishers: Odyssus,Don Quixonte, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot."

Mr. Flesch concludes that "It's not that evolution gives us insight into fiction, but that fiction gives us insight into evolution."

The entire article is introduced by a plot summary of an episode of Friends involving Phoebe, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler and a series of understandings and misunderstandings of the various mental states.   At one point, Phoebe tells Rachel, "They don't know that we know they know we know."

The fact that we know exactly what she is saying, and enjoy it, speaks to the value of this argument. The fact that I occasionally watch Friends reruns and remember this episode and enjoyed it speaks to my deep commitment to the study of literature and the workings of the brain. The fact that it took a professor of 18th century English literature to bring this association of popular culture,  historic literature, and cognitive psychology together may be front-page news. It cannot come as  a surprise to my daughter who has been saying much the same thing since she was thirteen. 

1 comment:

  1. Exactly!! I've met Lisa Zunshine at ASECS conferences. I'm really glad her work is getting major press coverage—what a victory for 18th-century literary scholarship!