The capacity to understand the internal mental states of others and oneself is central to human social and emotional life. We see its effects in the bonds that tie parents and infants, in friendships among adults, and in our ability to intuit what strangers are thinking and feeling on the basis of subtle cues. But it also operates in play, art, theater, and literature, enabling us to seamlessly understand characters and experience emotion in fictional contexts. Scholarly interest in this consequential faculty dates back centuries, and current investigations span several disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and literary studies. These fields use a variety of overlapping terms—such as empathy, theory of mind, and mentalization—to capture a complex set of phenomena.
Thanks to recent research, we now know much about the neural bases of this quintessentially human ability, about its onset during development, its usefulness in psychotherapy and its breakdown in certain pathologies, and its pivotal role in the arts. In this seminar, we explore the role of our experiences in play and fictional worlds and our social interactions in creating and consolidating our ability to understand the minds of others.
Thalia R. Goldstein, Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology, George Mason University
Meghan L. Meyer, Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College
Lisa Zunshine, Bush-Holbrook Professor of English, University of Kentucky
Moderated by Valerio Amoretti, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University
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Understanding the Minds of Others in Fiction, Play, and Reality