I talked in an earlier post about the idea that we come to understand other people’s mental states through learning to project ourselves, through imagination, into the point of view of another person. In gaining a grasp of my mental states, Athena has to learn to novelise me, or run a mental simulation of my own beliefs, desires and intentions in order to predict and understand how I will act, think and feel. Simulation theory, as it is known, is seen as one of the main alternatives to the view that children develop a ‘theory’ of mind by framing hypotheses about how the mind works and then testing them out through action.
Proponents of simulation theory have frequently drawn parallels between the kind of biographical thinking involved in simulation and the creative processes through which novelists create characters. The psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley has been one of the most important advocates of the view that fiction itself is a kind of simulation—in his words, ‘a simulation that runs on minds of readers’. In the blog OnFiction, which he co-authors with some other academics interested in the relation between psychology and fiction, he describes this position along with hinting at some of its implications. One such implication is that our reading of fiction can be expected to give our mind-reading abilities a thorough work-out. A similar view has been put forward by Lisa Zunshine, who has argued that one of the pleasures of fictional prose is the way it challenges our theory of mind. Working out who thinks what about whom is a mental challenge which constantly brings us, as expert readers and novices ones, back to storyworlds.
You can read Keith’s post here.