Monday 12 May 2008

Theory of Mind at the Movies

One of our psychological findings (see Mar et al., 2006, in our archive of academic papers) is that people who read mainly fiction have better empathy and other social skills than people who read mainly non-fiction. We attribute this to the principle of expertise, which has been much researched in cognitive science. The subject matter of most short stories and novels is selves and their vicissitudes in the social world. In reading fiction, as Lisa Zunshine has pointed out in her (2006) book Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel, we exercise, and enjoy exercising, our theory of mind to understand these selves. People who read fiction are therefore able to practice, and become expert at, skills of understanding selves in the social world. By contrast, those who read about physics, or biology, or history, become more expert in those domains.

We have not investigated whether this increased expertise in the social world would be present in people who watch films that are mainly of the fictional kind, as compared with people whose film watching is mainly of documentaries that concentrate on explanation. What we can say, however, is that there are some fiction films that focus very strongly on the social nature of human existence. Such a one is Gabrielle, directed by Patrice Chéreau, This beautiful and moving film, with Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert in its leading roles, is an adaptation of "The Return," a short story by Joseph Conrad. The centre of the drama is people's theory of mind: how much we know about each other and ourselves, and how much we can know. I give the film a 4 on a five-point scale.

You can access a review of Gabrielle by clicking here.

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