Embodied Transparency

I use the term “embodied transparency” to describe the moments in fictional narratives when characters’ body language involuntarily betrays their feelings, particularly if they want to conceal them from others. I believe that the pleasure that we as readers derive from such moments is best explained by thinking about what they do to our theory of mind. (What they do to the characters inside the story is a different matter; many characters don't even notice them.) Instances of embodied transparency offer us something that we hold at a premium in our everyday life and never get much of: the experience of perfect access to other people’s minds in complex social situations. As such they must be immensely flattering to our theory of mind adaptations, which evolved to read minds through bodies but have to constantly contend with the possibility of misreading and resulting social failure.

My book, Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture (Johns Hopkins UP, 2012), explores the forms that embodied transparency takes in different historical periods and genres: thirteenth-century Chinese operas, medieval ribald tales, eighteenth-century French paintings, nineteenth-century English novels, twentieth-century movies, musicals, photography, and standup comedy, and twenty-first century reality television.

Selected Publications

Culture of Greedy Mind Readers Huffington Post, 2012

“Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.” Narrative 16.1 (2008): 65-92 (pdf)