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'Mind reading' the news

By Suzy Khimm

A New York Times article about the science of reading explains
how figuring out someone else’s mental state is central to what
attracts us to works of fiction in the first place:

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. … [University of Kentucky English professor Lisa] Zunshine is particularly interested in what cognitive scientists call the theory of mind, which involves one person’s ability to interpret another person’s mental state and to pinpoint the source of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.

Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma …

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. … And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

Cognitive scientists and literary scholars like Zunshine theorize that this process of discerning someone else’s mental state -- and figuring out whether what he or she believes is valid -- is central to how we engage with literature and why we can feel so passionate about fictional characters.

I’d argue that this process of “mind reading” is also at the heart of nonfiction as well — particularly in political journalism, which is populated by as many characters, hidden motives and misunderstandings as any Jane Austen novel. And I think it’s a phenomenon that’s become even more heightened with the rise of new media techniques that have broken up monolithic stories into individual, often competing narratives that readers end up juggling on their own.

With the rise of blog-based and incremental reporting, the vehicle for a news story often ends up being an individual player who is advancing his or her own position with regard to a larger issue. During the health-care debate, for example, the latest word from a key player like Bart Stupak or Ben Nelson was often enough to set off an entire cycle of news. It wasn’t that people took Stupak or Nelson’s point of view as the only event worth caring about: that their views were considered alongside other players and interpretations of the issue at hand.

Detractors of this form of journalism often worry that readers who consume information this way will only get the story from one point of view — and a potentially biased one at that. But as Zunshine’s research suggests, it’s our desire and ability to keep track of multiple mental states — weighing them against each other, discerning their motives and questioning their beliefs — that makes the process of following all these individual points of view so addictive and compelling.

There is the danger, of course, that readers’ brains can become overwhelmed with too many competing mental states — the kind of “narrative overload” that detracts from our real understanding of the situation. That’s when a more authoritative, comprehensive take on the issue at hand comes in particularly handy. But there’s also a reason that we become so engrossed in following individual characters and “mental states.” And the fragmentation of political news into these individual narratives may not be a sign of the deterioration of the media — but rather an indication of what compels us to read these stories in the first place.

Suzy Khimm is a journalist who covered health-care reform at The New Republic and is now a political reporter at Mother Jones.

By Washington Post Editors  |  April 6, 2010; 5:30 PM ET
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Suzy, you've got a bad link. Please fix!

Posted by: citizenstx | April 6, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

That’s great to hear! Please let us know what you think of it. I am greatly enjoying it, myself. Thanks for your update.

Posted by: sophiyabush07 | April 7, 2010 3:27 AM | Report abuse

Hi, I applaud your blog for informing people, very interesting article, keep up it coming Smile.

Posted by: sophiyabush07 | April 7, 2010 7:11 AM | Report abuse

Interesting post. In related insights, "Professor Zunshine" is an awesome name.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | April 7, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

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