Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition

Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition

For a long time I have been interested in ‘small-scale’ phenomena of language and interaction (visible in single texts, sentences, or even words), as well as in the ‘largest-scale’ questions of our development and evolution as social and cultural beings. Mindreading (a.k.a. theory of mind) and the handling of viewpoints in language and narrative is an area where both scales meet. To start with a large-scale question: we humans spend most of our social time interacting in dyads, triads and small groups. Yet at the same time we live in mass societies. How do we do this? Obviously there are many answers to this question—I believe one is: by telling stories.

Why? Let me begin with an example from animal behaviour that provides an insightful contrast: Machiavellian scrub-jays. Nicki Clayton and others have shown that western scrub-jays are capable of a clever form of deception. They collect a bit of food and ‘hide’ it in plain sight of their peers. Knowing that they risk a raid, they stick around until the others are distracted or gone altogether. Then they quickly dig up their food stash and re-hide it elsewhere, so that potential raiders will look in the wrong place. Very clever indeed. Yet from observations it is known that not all western scrub-jays do this: such deception is limited to those individuals who have a history as a thief. In other words, scrub-jays seem to need a particular episode of their own personal history to be able to imagine how others would behave in a particular context—for them it takes a thief to know a thief.

For us humans this is clearly different. We can imagine scenarios far beyond our own life experience. To give just one example: in February 2013 a lethal incident took place in the house of South-African athlete Oscar Pistorius. Newspapers around the world headlined ‘Pistorius shooting: accident or murder?’ without spelling out the two contrasting scenarios in detail (especially in the first days; see Van Duijn 2016). Readers thus had to use their imagination to make ‘projections’ of what could have happened: either Pistorius thought there was a burglar in his house and felt threatened, or he was filled with rage, maybe out of jealousy, and intended to kill his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp when he pulled the trigger… The point is that almost any reader can clearly do such imagining without having had similar experiences in their own lives.

In psychology and the cognitive sciences it is customary to ascribe such ability to our mindreading/theory of mind capacity. This capacity is certainly relevant here on some level, but in my work I tend to draw attention to how much the ‘projection’ of such scenarios has in common with telling stories—no matter whether it is done silently in our minds or out loud in discourse. In part I build on the existing tradition of narrative practice (e.g. Gallagher & Hutto 2008), but my focus is different. I analyse how narrative language usage (or ‘the narrative mode’) delivers support to our understanding of other perspectives, thereby enabling us to deal with complex multiple-viewpoint situations.

A dominant view is that stories impose a cognitive load on readers by presenting multiple perspectives. For example, Lisa Zunshine argues that stories ranging from literary novels (such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) to ancient tales (such as Heliodorus’ Aithiopika) push the limits of readers’ mindreading capacity by confronting them with so-called higher-order-intentionality tasks (A wants B to think that C believes…etc.). I suggest, on the contrary, that the narrative mode alleviates the cognitive load posed by such tasks. As an example of this, using various strategies, the narrator of Mrs Dalloway gradually leads readers through a network of perspectives on the novel’s events. Such a network seems very complex when fitted into a single proposition (or when drawn in a diagram, for that matter), but it comes completely naturally when presented in a narrative. It is not easy to illustrate this with a brief example, and the reason for that is part of my point. However, consider the following passage:

Hugh produced his fountain pen; his silver fountain pen, which had done twenty years’ service, he said, unscrewing the cap. It was still in perfect order; he had shown it to the makers; there was no reason, they said, why it should ever wear out; which was somehow to Hugh’s credit, and to the credit of the sentiments which his pen expressed (so Richard Dalloway felt)...                                                                            (Woolf 1925; qtd. in Zunshine 2006; qtd. in Van Duijn & Sluiter, 2017)                                                                                              


Readers who have read the entire novel up to this point have gradually gathered a lot of background knowledge about Richard, Hugh, and Lady Bruton, which means that they are more sensitive to the subtleties of this passage. Nonetheless, an impression is given of how we first follow the narrator’s perspective on how Hugh begins to write, while he brags about his pen. Through this we learn about the views of the pen’s makers. By the end of the passage, the comment between parenthesis ‘so Richard Dalloway felt’ cues the reader to re-render part of what has just been said from Richard’s point of view (the reader has to do a double take, as it were). Then, as the passage continues beyond the point cited here, we switch to Lady Bruton’s perspective. Just as Clarissa Dalloway is wandering when the novel begins, the reader ‘wanders’ from one perspective to the other as the story unfolds.

In my PhD thesis I present linguistic and narratological analyses of various stretches of literary texts and news narratives, discussing how ‘expository strategies’ such as characterisation, focalisation, framing, episodic structuring, and redundancy work together to build a progressively complex network of viewpoints. This is what I above refer to as the ‘small scale’ of analysing sentences and words. Another example: put in a single proposition, readers or watchers of Shakespeare’s Othello have to understand that Iago intends that Cassio believes that Desdemona intends that Othello believes that Cassio wanted to preserve peace… (and much more; this is only after the second act!). That may sound impossibly opaque, yet we know that the play has been understood and appreciated by many different audiences for ages. In a paper together with Ineke Sluiter and Arie Verhagen (2015) we discuss in detail how Othello conveys such viewpoint complexity in a natural and graspable way.

To finish off with one more large-scale outlook: I would say that every child who learns to master the narrative mode is endowed with a powerful tool for navigating the ‘intentional world’. By this I mean the imaginary world of the inner lives of thousands of characters, either fictional or modelled on real-world people (as would be the case in most daily-life gossip stories). In that way, when we read, hear, or watch stories we gain experience with seeing the world though others’ eyes. And by becoming skilled users of the narrative mode (as we grow up in the midst of our culture’s local story tradition), we become productive storytellers, capable of generating new ‘intentional texture’, as it were—new stories which we use for thinking about and sharing with others what the world looks like from other perspectives. So in contrast with the scrub-jays, all we need for knowing a thief may be a thief’s story.

Max van Duijn, Leiden University

N.B. For a more fully argued and referenced version, see my doctoral thesis (2016), the paper I wrote with Ineke Sluiter and Arie Verhagen (2015), and a forthcoming article (2017)


Duijn, M.J. van, I. Sluiter, and A. Verhagen. (2015). ‘When narrative takes over: The representation of embedded mindstates in Shakespeare’s Othello. Language and Literature 24: (2): 148–166.

Duijn, M.J. van & I. Sluiter. (to appear). Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Processing perspective shifts in Mrs Dalloway.

Duijn, M. J. van. (2016). The Lazy Mindreader. A Humanities Perspective on Mindreading and Multiple-Order Intentionality, Leiden University, 2016

Clayton, N. and N. Emery. (2005). ‘Corvid Cognition’. Current Biology 15: 3: R80-81.

Gallagher, S. and D.D. Hutto. (2008). ‘Primary interaction and narrative practice.’ In: J. Zlatev, T. Racine (et al.) (eds.). The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity. Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 17–38.

Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction. Theory of Mind and the novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

Mind in Movement at the National Museum of Scotland

In a 2011 lecture titled ‘The real reason for brains,’ neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert states that:

We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. There is no other reason to have a brain. Think about it. Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you. Now, that’s not quite true. There’s one other way, and that’s through sweating. But apart from that, everything else goes through contractions of muscles. Think about communication—speech, gestures, writing, sign languages—they’re all mediated through contractions of your muscles. So it’s really important to remember that sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important, but they’re only important to either drive or suppress future movements (2011, online).

Biological organisms have a neurological system topped by a brain when their survival depends on their capacity to move autonomously. Typically, trees don’t have a brain. If the brain is for movement, then the perspectives of embodied, embedded and enactive cognition are easily granted. Cognition is to mind our steps, adaptably, all the way to the highest levels of complexity and abstraction. The mind occurs, in the sense that it is not a thing but a relational process. It is the dynamic possibility of procedural interactions with the environment via movements and a cognition that is elicited by such interactions. Operating in close relation to sensorimotor contingencies, the mind primarily takes place by processing perceptions and sensations, which are geared towards action and interaction. No mind exists that is not already embedded in a concrete, sensorimotor environment, and triggered by intra- and extra-corporeal distributed factors.

How might this viewpoint make us reconsider three artefacts held by the National Museum of Scotland? All three objects are tokens of complex human actions and activities in many different ways and on different registers. They all bespeak the interconnection between cognition, embodiment and the environment. The Pembridge Helm is the result of medieval warfare developments, including the practice of training by jousting. The Lewis chess piece stands for the act of playing a game of intelligence, strategy and anticipation. And it also gestures through its human shape towards the potential intensity of human expressiveness. Finally, the photograph of Victorian firefighters is a token of two technological developments: the first is that of using light and chemistry to capture visual data and turn them into a stable object, the photograph; the second is that of fighting fire by means of a water tank, a hand pump and a hose, possibly requiring two persons instead of a chain of people passing water buckets. In all three cases, the artefact would simply not exist were it not for the human action it encapsulates in its very presence. To relate to such objects is to enact cognitively their pragmatic meaning and to gain access to the human endeavours they manifest, in relation to an ever-changing environment.

In regard to the cognitive enactment of pragmatic meaning, my talk will focus on our ability to infer sensations of movements (called kinaesthetic sensations) in another human’s gestures, in a representation of gesture, as well as in gestures implied by an artefact. For example, we may readily infer a sensorial difference in carrying a stick and carrying an anvil. In carrying a stick we may infer the possibility of wielding, jabbing or flourishing it; not so with the anvil. Because of the difference in shape and weight in the two objects, we mentally adapt our posture, gestures, and hence the sensations of movements we infer. The pragmatic meaning we thus adduce regarding both artefacts is grounded in our sensorimotor knowledge and our propensity to activate our embodied cognition. This being said, we all have different ways in which we cognitively enact such postures, gestures and actions. Our cognitive styles, our interests and personal histories will thankfully add variable aspects to our cognitive processes. 

Guillemette Bolens, University of Geneva

Literary Distributed Cognition & Memory

What does the memory have to do with how we experience literary texts and performances?

Experiences reignite memories, while it is our sedimented memories, the layers of cognitive pathways formed over our developmental and evolutionary histories, that in the first place ignite experiences, giving them salience. So to offer a basic example, when we encounter a cup of coffee, we know how to handle it. Present and past are interwoven and are reciprocally constitutive. Our lives’ entwined cognitive, emotional, physical and sociocultural experiences lay down pathways of prediction and potentiality. Those interwoven strands of present and past anticipate the future, as our perpetually expanding, diminishing and ever shifting horizons, shape our phenomenological experiences. Merleau-Ponty described it in terms of ‘each gesture or each perception’ being ‘situated in relation to a thousand virtual coordinates’, whether we are moving through a familiar space, where immediately one is aware that ‘looking out the window involves having the fireplace to my left’, or  chatting with a close friend where ‘each of his words, and each of mine contain, beyond what they signify for someone else, a multitude of references’ (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 131). These mental panoramas encompass the spatial, the social and the inner mental life. Our mental movement through these panoramas shifts seamlessly between the actual and the counterfactual; the past, present and future; the real and the fictional; the present and the possible. The capacity to anticipate the future and the goings-on of another’s mind stretches beyond the potentially actual into a capacity to imagine fictional places, times and people. Our flexibility, such that we are able to use things in the world to think with, extends to the domain of language and literature (Anderson 2015).

Language, and particularly the consciously crafted language of literature, triggers a rich array of responses that are grounded in our sedimented emotional, physical and cultural histories. This involves both sharing among individuals as well as divergences in our particular responses. Theatre and film also make use of the expressive affordances of the sensory material world in real or virtual form respectively, from physical gestures to natural and sociocultural objects and environments. These advantages over the simply verbal accounts of printed stories are countered by the significant development in literary texts of the means to communicate the workings of other minds, rather than just depict it from an external perspective, such as via subjective reports or physiological expressions. At the same time, all three share techniques and devices that compensate for their artificiality and make use of these to reawaken or heighten experience. D.H. Lawrence’s description (below) brings into our own minds either consciously or non-consciously instances when we’ve strained to make something out in the dim distance:

He could just make sure of the small black figure moving in the hollow of the failing day. He seemed to see her in the midst of such obscurity, that he was like a clairvoyant, seeing rather with the mind’s eye than with ordinary sight. (Lawrence 1994, 555)

As one reads the eyes and mind also attentively strain along the words towards the figure as if one has a kind of second sight, by means of the author’s imagination figured forth in words. Literary works are cognitive mediators, which by immersing us in them (to a greater or lesser extent), make us aware of our immersion in life, while also (to a greater or lesser extent) revealing the aesthetic structures whereby we are immersed in fiction, so inviting reflection on the more mundane structures that shape our daily lives. These works are able to operate in this powerful way partly because of the way in which they become part of our cognitive system, as they build upon the structures of our personal memories. We flesh out fictions via inferences grounded in memories, and in the process recalibrate our memories.

Recent research on episodic memory, which involves the creation and storing of personal memories, suggests that mental scene construction, whether past, future or fictionally oriented, is a reconstructive process (Hassabis and Maguire 2007). Those with damage to the hippocampus, a brain area associated with the episodic memory, when asked to think about their route to work or their upcoming holiday, or to imagine that they live in an underwater world, will in all three instances not be able to verbally sketch out any kind of detailed picture or storyline. Impaired capacity to recollect goes hand in hand with the impairment of the imagination, which is necessary for engagement with literature. Lost is the wonderful capacity of imagining through words a perceptual experience and then the later recollection of such an imaginary perceptual experience, either within or beyond the thought-world of the literary work. These literary experiences ‘flash upon that inward eye’ at times more vividly than the mundanities of daily life (Wordsworth): they fuse into and supplement our thousand virtual coordinates, in relation to which we orient ourselves in a literary work and in the world. Such is the extended cognitive reach that literature can give to most of us and that the episodic memory facilitates.

Miranda Anderson, University of Edinburgh

A version of this blog was written for the Royal Soceity of Edinburgh funded project on Cognitive Experience of Verbal and Screen-based Narrative (see 'Links') .


Anderson, Miranda. 2015. The Renaissance Extended Mind. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hassabis, Demis and Eleanor A. Maguire. 2007. ‘Deconstructing episodic memory with construction.’ Trends in Cognitive Science 11.7: 299-306.

Lawrence, D.H. 1994. ‘The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.’ Collected Stories. New York: Everyman’s Library.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wordsworth, William. ‘Daffodils.’ Poems of Wordsworth. Edinburgh, Nelson Classics.


Bringing History to Mind

Our eight recorded seminars have clearly got people thinking about how ideas from the contemporary distributed cognition framework relate to various historical precursors, analogues and expressions of those ideas. Here are just three of the connections that have been made in the online discussions. Firstly, it has been proposed that ancient experiences of theatre and oratory may be illuminated using the concept of the socially extended individual mind. Secondly, that a modern embodied perspective on language might have more in common with the medieval/renaissance conception of language as idea-carrying breath than it does with other more recent perspectives. Thirdly, that the notion of the body that emerged during the sixteenth century may underpin a distinctive kind of distributed view.

Meanwhile, in theoretical mode, contributors have wondered about the range of ways in which cognitive states and processes might be spread out over social groups and institutions, about the multiple dimensions of distributed memory, and about the role of semiotics in distributed cognition. And splits have already emerged! For instance, while a worry has been voiced that the various versions of distributed cognition might be at odds with each other, it’s also been suggested that this isn’t really a problem, since different psychological achievements may deploy different forms of distributed cognition. And while one contributor was concerned that distributed cognition might not be able to explain the uniqueness of human beings, another was enthusiastic about the possibility of the approach revealing a deep continuity with the non-human animal world.

Thoughts like these have been played out in relation to a range of historical phenomena. For example, we’ve had distributed takes on ancient technologies of writing and book publication, ancient wax writing tablets, the views held by the pneumatic physiologists of fifth century Greece, and the accounting practices of the Roman agronomists. Moreover, contributors have found instances of distributed cognition in a wide range of sociocultural phenomena, including music, dance, poetry and literature. All of this indicates exactly the kind of productive cross-fertilization between periods and disciplines at which the project is aiming. Thanks to everyone for their contributions so far.

Michael Wheeler, University of Stirling