Saturday, September 3, 2016

Rant: Theory of Mind, NOT!

I posted this back in 2010, but I'm thinking about these things these days, so I thought I'd bump it to the top of the queue. Here's a companion piece from last year.
Theory of mind (aka TOM) is all the rage in (some quarters of) cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. It’s driving me batsh¡t crazy. And its use by literary critics makes me super-mega batsh¡t crazy.

Why? By the time literary critics use all that's left is the term itself, undisciplined by the observations that gave rise to the idea. For literary critics it's a "get out of (conceptual) jail free" card.

Let me explain

Well, first, in case you don’t know what TOM is, it refers to the capacity humans have for attending to and wondering about what’s on someone else’s mind. It’s a capacity that’s possibly unique to humans, though perhaps not, and it begins appearing at around four-plus years of age. My problem is not with the research itself or the notion that some-such capacity comes “online” at that point in development. What bothers me is the term and its implications.

It bothers Melvin Konner too. Here’s a passage from an opinion piece* he published in Nature a few years ago:
Meanwhile, social-cognition theorists have come up with a phrase inferential enough to make one almost long for the black-boxers: theory of mind. Freud sought one, Skinner assiduously didn’t, and most people don’t bother to ask themselves whether they have or need one. Yet there is serious debate as to whether chimpanzees or four-year-olds have a theory of mind. Closely inspected, the phrase seems to mean something like perspective-taking or, when mutual, intersubjectivity. True, a four-year-old can see and act on another person’s perspective whereas most three-year-olds can’t.

This is fascinating stuff and something we need to understand. But a term such as ‘theory of mind’ simply stands in the way. It makes for catchy article titles but conveys no meaning. Is the maturing orbitofrontal cortex newly able to calm an impulsive and self-centred limbic circuit? Is there a down-regulation of some neurotransmitter receptor, allowing a younger form of social mirror-imaging to grow into identification and parallel perspectives? As long as we are playing with pretty word-coins that substitute for brain functions, we will never know.
This TOM-talk is rather like Richard Dawkins talking about “selfish” genes. He knows perfectly well that genes aren’t the kind of agents that can be motivated by selfish considerations, but it’s a useful way of talking. And, in a pinch, he’s quite capable of explaining what’s going on without recourse to the personification; that is to say, Dawkins and others can give technical accounts that do not require genes to have mental states.

Similarly, the psychologists don’t believe that four year-old children are reasoning about the mind in the manner of philosophers or cognitive scientists. It’s not that kind of theory they’re imputing to the child. But this odd usage of “theory” is, in the end, grounded in experimental evidence and psychologists can talk and reason about those experiments. Konner’s point, of course, is that too ready explanatory recourse to TOM-talk is likely to get in the way of deeper theoretical investigation.

However, what really drives me up the wall is the use to which literary theorists are putting TOM. It’s not so much that the resulting literary criticism is bad – some of it is, in fact, rather interesting. It’s that it has little to do with the observational evidence on which the psychologists are basing their thinking about TOM.

The psychologist’s observations, as far as I know, typically involve either actual face-to-face interaction, or situations where the (human) subject can examine either dolls in a play environment or some picture of a person or persons. TOM behavior is thus something one observes in a selected class of physical situations.

Literary critics, however, face a very different observational situation. They are not observing people interacting with other people, or with dolls, or even people looking at pictures. They’re not observing people at all.

They’re reading books, printed symbols on pieces of paper. The books were written by people, of course, and they are about fictional people. But no real people or dolls or pictures of same are physically present to literary critics. They're reading written words. That’s all.

The critic might well imagine characters interacting. The people and actions they see and hear in their mental theatre are not physically in front of them. Beyond that, what's the physical situation of characters in stories? Are they following one another’s gazes – a typical TOM behavior – so as to know what one another is looking at? Who knows?

As far as I can tell, all literary critics takes over from the TOM literature is the term itself. Nothing else. In particular they are not taking explicit mechanisms and putting those mechanisms through their paces in a literary context. The reason I say that is because the TOM literature, as far as I know, have explicit mechanisms. The literature doesn’t discuss how the child makes such inferences beyond saying, well, it’s theory of mind.

Now, what literary critics do in the name of TOM may very well be interesting and valid as literary criticism. But the psychology literature deals with situations that are so very different that it's not clear how that literature supports what the literary critic is doing. The mechanisms the 4-year-old uses to infer another’s intentions may be a component the mechanisms the adult reader uses in interpreting the words on the page. But we don't know that. As far as I can tell, the TOM critics don’t care about that. All they care about is being able to invoke TOM as an explanation for what they imagine to be going on in a given text.

Thus, I find literary critics fascination with TOM rather disheartening. It's sloppy thinking. It's scientism. It does not bode well for the "cognitive turn" in literary theory. It's beginning to feel like these critics have found a new way to turn literary criticism into high-falutin' BS.

* Melvin Konner, Bad Words, Nature, 411, p. 743 (14 June 2001).


  1. I certainly agree with what's here and the confusion between characters and real people is certainly there, or at least the distinction is rarely explicitly made. ANY cognitive discussion of literature is certainly discussion of readers (and writers - an aspect of things that doesn't get enough attention) and not "ink on the page." I'm wondering however, if a simple shift -- to oversimplify -- from "X does this because..." to "The reader believes that X does this because..." wouldn't lift some of the fog, in which case the situation is not quite so dire.

    Tom D.

  2. I don't see how the TOM literature, the deep stuff, the observations and experiments, under-writes the things literary critics are doing in the name of that literature. Your suggestion doesn't change that. Now, as I said, what critics do may be perfectly valid, and your rhetorical suggestion may help clarify the nature of that validity, but the TOM literature remains irrelevant. Critics are using the TOM literature to confer some kind of epistemic validity on what they're doing. That's confused and misleading.

  3. I'd also posted these remarks at The Valve, where Luther Blissett made an interesting comment in which he brings up the notion of folk psychology. Here's what I say about that:

    Luther: Though I’ve read some Brunner – an old, and excellent, collection of essays, Beyond the Information Given – I’ve certainly not read the piece you mention. But I question his identification of TOM and folk psychology. They aren’t the same, though there may be some overlap between them. The problem is that it isn’t clear what TOM is, the term just gets in the way.

    Yes, folk psychology is, as you say, “our own understandings of how our (and others’) minds work.” It’s our common sense language about feelings and desires and thoughts and memories and so forth. Psychologists have begun studying folk psychology and how we use it in understanding and explaining our behavior – I’ve got some remarks along these lines in this old essay about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, about S’s talk of spirit and madness, etc.. The thing about folk psychology is that it’s explicit; we’ve got these terms and we use them all the time. We’re aware of them. And we use them to make explicit and conscious inferences about our actions and those of others.

    TOM isn’t like that, or doesn’t seem to be. It seems to be part of the so-called cognitive unconscious. It’s part of our mental machinery. Some important work on so-called TOM has been done by Simon Baron-Cohen, who works on autism – see, e.g. his book, Mindblindness. The argument is that autistics lack TOM, hence their social difficulties. And, apparently one thing they can do to cope is to use folk psychology as a guide to inferring what they don’t do automatically infer or recognize via TOM.

  4. Ah what you need BB, is a "Theory of No Mind" (TONM), or perhaps the "Myth of Mind" (MOM). With help from the Churchlands, you can further the eliminative materialist thesis. Emotions, memories, experiences, thoughts, understanding, Reason--merely myths, like unicorns, says Doc BB.

    Maybe start over with like ebonics Descartes

  5. Stop reading with your mouth, J. This issue has nothing to do with eliminative materialism.

  6. The reductionist typically relies on an ad ignorantium, nearly as egregious as a fundamentalist's--"anyone who says Mind exists cannot provide tangible proof, but only vague suppositions, conjectures...therefore, Mind (consciousness, ideas, thinking) doesn't exist."" The Churchland fallacy.

    And as I said for a real Theory of Mind--rather than some lit-types guestimates--maybe start with Descartes. Cogito, ergo sum. You've been refuted.

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  8. ...for a real Theory of Mind...

    Well, in a way, that's the point. TOM isn't a "real" theory of mind & has nothing whatever to do with such things. What's worse, the casual and self-satisfied way the label is deployed pretty much guarantees that the TOMers will never look for a real theory or feel the lack thereof.

    So why are you complaining about me? I see perfectly well that this TOM stuff is nonsense, that's why I wrote the post. You need to stop playing the wise-ass know it all and actually learn to read what people right.