Fiction, Theory of Mind, and Religion

For those who read novels, you know the sensation: it feels like you are present in the story and in the minds of the characters.  This special and captivating experience is unique to humans and is attributable to what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind.”

In a previous post, I noted how theory of mind appears to be essential to supernatural-religious experience.  Autistics usually lack theory of mind and hence have no conception of the supernatural or religious.  They simply cannot imagine spirits or gods.

Today’s New York Times carries an interesting story about the experience of reading fiction and its connection to theory of mind:

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. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Ms. 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.

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading.

We can use similar snapshots, or analyses of cognitive functioning, to explore the mechanics of supernatural thinking and religion.

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