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Getting Inside Your Head

What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture

Lisa Zunshine

Publication Year: 2012

We live in other people's heads: avidly, reluctantly, consciously, unaware, mistakenly, and inescapably. Our social life is a constant negotiation among what we think we know about each other's thoughts and feelings, what we want each other to think we know, and what we would dearly love to know but don't. Cognitive scientists have a special term for the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes us attribute mental states to other people through observation of their body language; they call it theory of mind. Getting Inside Your Head uses research in theory of mind to look at movies, musicals, novels, classic Chinese opera, stand-up comedy, mock-documentaries, photography, and reality television. It follows Mr. Darcy as he tries to conceal his anger (Pride and Prejudice), Tyler Durden as he lectures a stranger at gunpoint (Fight Club), and Ingrid Bergman as she fakes interest in horse races (Notorious). Written in reader-friendly language, this book exemplifies the new interdisciplinary field of cognitive cultural studies, demonstrating that collaboration between cognitive science and cultural studies is both exciting and productive.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Preface: Fantasies of Access

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pp. xi-xiii

We live in other people’s heads: avidly, reluctantly, consciously, unawares, mistakenly, inescapably. Our social life is a constant negotiation among what we think we know about each other’s thoughts and feelings, what we want each other to think we know...

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ONE: Culture of Greedy Mind Readers

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pp. 1-20

I am writing this in a quiet library hall lined with long desks. In front of me I see a young woman turning around and glancing at the three whispering and occasionally laughing students to her left. I think the noise bothers her, and she wants to show it. But I could be wrong...

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TWO: I Know What You’re Thinking Mr. Darcy!

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pp. 21-44

Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion (1816) tells the story of a woman who, unmarried and unhappy at twenty-seven, suddenly finds herself thrust into the company of a man whom she has loved but was persuaded to give up eight years ago. The objections that her friends had to him...

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THREE: Sadistic Benefactors

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pp. 45-54

Some fictional characters get a glimpse of other characters’ true feelings; others don’t notice a thing; and some may even get a chance to think back and realize what this or that look or gesture truly meant. There is also another category of characters...

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FOUR: Theaters, Hippodromes, and Other Mousetraps

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pp. 55-78

Why do we go to the theater? A theory-of-mind hardliner such as myself, determined to see everything through the lens of mind reading, would say we go to the theater to give our greedy theory of mind a very particular and rich treat. We watch actors’ facial expressions...

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FIVE: Movies: The Power of Restraint

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pp. 79-102

We are now moving away from the printed page and toward visual and aural experiences of embodied transparency: mostly in movies, but with occasional glances at the theatrical stage. Movies, of course, are theory-of-mind-writ-large—competing with novels as feasts for greedy mind readers. To date I am aware of two...

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SIX: Mockumentaries, Photography, and Stand-Up Comedy: Upping the Agony

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pp. 103-116

It’s another day at The Office—a British mock documentary about the “boss from hell,” David Brent (Ricky Gervais). A regional manager of a paper company, David is about to interview two candidates for the position of secretary. This must be the worst time to hire new people—the branch is about to be downsized...

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SEVEN: Reality TV: Humiliation in Real Time

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pp. 117-124

Now what about reality shows? Clearly, embodied transparency is a huge factor in their appeal. That said, the term reality show covers such a variety of formats and approaches that we should be careful about claiming that all they do is cultivate moments when people’s bodies betray their feelings...

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EIGHT: Musicals (Particularly around 11 PM)

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pp. 125-144

The expression “sing your heart out” is a cliché, but it captures perfectly an intuitive mind-reading expectation we have about singing in stage and screen musicals: singing gives us direct access to characters’ hearts, revealing their secret thoughts, feelings...

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NINE: Painting Feelings

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pp. 145-168

It’s warm outside. Spring blossoms brush against the house. Leaning over the windowsill, propping his right hand with his left, a young man is blowing bubbles. Just now a particularly large bubble is trembling at the tip...

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TEN: Painting Mysteries

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pp. 169-178

To portray somebody completely absorbed in what they are doing is an effective way to make their thoughts seem transparent to us, but it’s not the only way. I turn now to another pictorial tradition that achieves the same effect using a very different strategy. As in the case...


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pp. 179-180


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pp. 181-196


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pp. 197-210


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pp. 211-217

E-ISBN-13: 9781421408750
E-ISBN-10: 1421408759
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421406169
Print-ISBN-10: 1421406160

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 35 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 821735529
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Getting Inside Your Head

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Psychology and literature.
  • Cognition and culture.
  • Popular culture and literature.
  • Characters and characteristics in literature.
  • Philosophy and cognitive science.
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  • Open Access
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