What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture according to Lisa Zunshine

I’m reviewing a book entitled Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture by Lisa Zunshine and I’m hooked–not something I would often say about an academic text. Zunshine’s contention is that the appeal of popular culture can be explained by our need to exercise theory of mind, “the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes us attribute mental states to ourselves and to other people” (xi). Zunshine notes that we, as a species, have developed biological mechanisms that help us “read” the intentions behind other people’s expressions and behaviors; for example, fMRI technology has confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in our brain. What this means, at least to my neophyte mind, is that when we observe another’s action–Zunshine uses the example of someone reaching for a coffee cup–the neurons that would control the execution of this action within our own motor areas become active. In other words, when I watch someone reach for a cup, on some level my brain thinks I am doing it. Such neural mimicry must help us interpret the “states of feelings” that motivated the behaviors of others. (Mirror neurons are still under heavy debate, and Zunshine is careful to caution the reader accordingly.)

This is not to say that we practice theory of mind consciously nor that we always do it well. And certainly our desire to understand can be thwarted by another’s performance of behavior geared to manipulate. But what matters, in Zunshine’s opinion, is that we are greedy for these experiences and constantly seek opportunities to observe others and infer the mental states behind their actions. It is this hunger, she claims, that motivates the creation and consumption of popular culture.

What we especially seek, Zunshine explains, are “moments when characters’ body language involuntarily betrays their feelings, particularly if they want to conceal them from others” (23). Zunshine calls these moments of embodied transparency. She even goes so far as to say that the pleasure so many of us gain from interacting with children and pets derives from the more numerous opportunities of embodied transparency they seem to supply

Zunshine’s arguments are far more complex and she explains them far more eloquently than I ever could. But even at their most basic level, I’m impressed by their explanatory power. For example, I often find myself captivated by talk shows, court television, true crime, and reality programming. However, I’ve never been able to explain their appeal; I don’t especially like the shows themselves, but I love watching the characters, trying to determine what is authentic, if anything, and what is manufactured.

In addition, Zunshine’s comments brought to mind the number of lengthy conversations I have with friends in which one of us tells the other some anecdote involving interactions with others. Most of the conversation is spent trying to enable the absent person to “see” the scene, what everyone did, where their bodies were in space, where their eyes were focused, the tone of their voices. The moment might be the simplest of stories–mundane even–but the process itself is what makes the exchange meaningful.

I frequently become hooked on brief moments in film that seem to center on Zunshine’s concept of embodied transparency. Not only do I revisit them over and over in my mind, but I find myself every once in awhile needing to return to them. I’m not even sure why. Maybe they represent moments in which I have complete understanding of another human being, even if “only” fictional. Three film scenes immediately come to mind:

1) This interaction between Brandt and The Dude in The Big LebowskiBrandt’s desperate attempt to balance congeniality with his clear annoyance at the Dude’s mistreatment of the Big Lebowski’s awards–too perfect for words.

2) The scene in Contact in which Ellie is offered a second chance to go to space by her fairy godfather, S. R. Haddon. You can’t beat Jodie Foster’s expression of pure excitement.

3) Graham’s breakdown in Signs. Mel Gibson’s face literally just collapses in grief no matter how hard he tries to hold it together.

I am obsessed with these kinds of moments, these subtle displays of what Zunshine calls embodied transparency. But I am equally obsessed with the moments that obsess others in like fashion. So tell me about some of your favorites.

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