Cognitive Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Cognitive Theory

Blakey Vermeule

Cognitive theory is a new field of literary inquiry, having only begun to attract interest in the late 1990s. It now includes a wide array of approaches and ideas in a host of different subdisciplines. It connects with such well-established fields in linguistics as semantics, pragmatics, and the study of syntax. It also asks why we have the metaphors we do, how we process conceptual patterns in texts, and why poets and novelists converge on certain forms over and over again. Cognitive theory also takes in global concerns, such as the question of whether narrative is an adaptation or a by-product of other evolved capacities; how we empathize with fictional characters (and whether such empathy has the sorts of pro-social effects often claimed by critics); and what kinds of violations in our ordinary conceptual categories drive narrative interest.

Cognitive theory is part of a broader trend toward the empirical study of the arts, a trend that includes evolutionary literary criticism, statistical analysis of literary forms and others. Empirical approaches to literature seem, at least in part, to be a reaction against poststructuralist theory (see STRUCTURALISM). Poststructuralist theory, in all of its different manifestations, has been committed to a blank-slate picture of the human mind. In psychology, the blank slate theory has long been discarded. Indeed, since the start of the twenty-first century, the field of psychology has become deeply consilient with biology and evolutionary psychology. Cognitive theory also strives to be consilient with psychology, or at least not to contradict its findings.

Because my topic is the novel, I will limit myself to the cognitive theory of narrative, a field that is now quite robust. I will also say a few things about how cognitive preferences might have shaped the novel over the past three centuries. Surprisingly, some of the strongest intuitions of novel criticism are being tested and confirmed by cognitive theory.

Narrative as a Cognitive Universal

Human cognition, it is now widely accepted, depends on narratives. We simply cannot think—or retrieve memories—unless we think in stories. This view has been formulated in a number of different ways by various schools of thought from child-development researchers to primatologists to neurobiologists to philosophers. The view is that “the acquisition of language begins the process of conceptualizing and categorizing the thematic or narrative dimensions of human experience” (Tomasello and Call, 411). It has been vigorously pursued by, among others, the psychologist Roger Schank and the literary scholar Mark Turner. Schank's view is that “Storytelling and understanding are functionally the same thing” (24). This is true on a very local scale and a very global one. Narrative is now held to be “a major tool for sense-making” (Herman, 15). On a local scale, we encode knowledge as scripts and then bundle those scripts together into schemas. Those schemas help to orient us in time and space. The linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown how deeply embedded these schemas are in our cognitive unconscious. Consider one of the most basic human metaphors: the idea that life is a journey and that our movement through it can be impeded by various blockages. This metaphor can be broken down into many smaller parts, all of which can be traced back to the ways our bodies are oriented in space. So for example we talk all the time about how purposes are destinations in front of us; action is self-propelled motion; purposeful action is self-propelled motion to a destination. This metaphor structures many common daily expressions such as “I've got to get going on this project” or “I've run out of gas”; “we're moving ahead” or “we've come a long way” (Lakoff and Johnson 190—91). The life-as-a-journey metaphor also structures a huge number of canonical stories, such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Writers of narrative are able to count on our having an enormous catalogue of such schemas to draw on without realizing it. Readers quickly and easily draw on relevant inferences and ignore irrelevant ones, a process that has been the topic of decades of fruitful research into the heuristics of reading (Gerrig and Egidi, 41, 44).

Cognitive Underpinnings of the Novel: Three Hypotheses

The novel developed fitfully in the wake of an information revolution in Europe in the later seventeenth century. For decades, the novel competed in the literary marketplace with other sources of information, such as newspapers and scandal sheets (see JOURNALISM). Eventually the novel grew respectable as authors made claims about its moral and psychological benefits. Cognitive theory has now begun to confirm that the psychological benefits and moral benefits touted by such authors as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson were essentially correct. Global hypotheses about the cognitive underpinnings of narrative are multiplying rapidly. I will single out three that bear directly on the novel.

The first hypothesis is that narrative is a means of strategy testing and behavior prediction. Narrative allows its listeners to simulate scenarios that may be factual or counterfactual but which orient themselves to the sorts of puzzles that the person hearing it might face. “By trying out a succession of stories on a particular situation and seeing which of them most credibly generate and fit with the observed facts, narratives function as testable hypotheses in heuristic thought experiments. In these and other ways, narrative helps us orient ourselves as agents in a complex natural and social world and make our experience meaningful” (Steen, 88).

According to one prominent model, strategy testing depends on a capacity known as “Theory of Mind” (ToM). In this account, Theory of Mind is the ability to recognize that other people hold beliefs that may be different from your own and which may or may not accurately track an independent state of affairs. Theory of Mind underlies the human capacity for learning language, for pretense, for storytelling, for understanding counterfactual scenarios, for knowing when someone is being ironic, and for keeping track of the vast web of social connections in which we live. Many, perhaps most, narrative effects depend on this capacity, sometimes quite intensely. Lisa Zunshine has shown, for example, that writers generally considered experimental or difficult put much greater stress on our mind-reading capacities than writers of popular romances or airport thrillers. Experimental writers require that we stretch our ability to remember levels of intentionality far beyond the limit where it is cognitively comfortable for us to do so. Theory of Mind also underlies, arguably, our ability to empathize with characters in stories. According to one school of thought, empathizing with characters is no different from empathizing with real people. In both cases, we run a simulator in our own minds of the feelings that seem to be going through the minds of another person—and it makes little difference to our own simulator whether that person is actual or fictional. What is different between the fictional and the nonfictional cases are the prompts that get us to start and stop the simulator. Different, too, are the sorts of pro-social actions we take as a result of our empathizing. Suzanne Keen has recently demonstrated that the widespread belief that reading fiction makes people more altruistic is simply false, although reading fiction does make people more empathic. Keith Oatley has explicitly tested this hypothesis and found that “fiction readers had substantially greater empathy...than people who read predominantly non-fiction.” Fiction hijacks the brain circuitry that we use to navigate the social world. Oatley writes: “In our daily lives we use mental models to work out the possible outcomes of actions we take as we pursue our goals. Fiction is written in a way that encourages us to identify with at least some of the characters, so when we read a story, we suspend our own goals and insert those of a protagonist into our planning processors. The story tells us what actions are taken.” He says that fiction is a social “simulation that runs on the software of our minds,” akin to a flight simulator (42—43).

The second hypothesis is that narrative supports a variety of world-making practices, or in Donald's phrase, is “aimed at the deliberate refinement and elaboration of mental models and worldviews” (4). This aspect of narrative has played an outsized role in the history and theory of the novel. The novel has seemed to many critics to have a special purchase on shaping social norms and inculcating ideology. They view the novel as an especially effective tool for inculcating such values as chastity, obedience, marriage-mindedness, and so on. But this norm-setting view does not have to depend on the mind as a blank slate. The novel's normative elements have been taken as evidence for the blank-slate school of thought. The shaping pressure of narrative can mold people to the expectations of the world by helping them form a correct image of what other people want.

The third broad hypothesis is that narrative is crucial for monitoring cooperation, perhaps the most important aspect of human sociability. This view has been worked out most fully by William Flesch. Humans are almost unique in the depth and spread of our need to cooperate with each other. But cooperating is enormously psychologically costly. Hence the temptation to cheat is enormous. Deceit, hypocrisy, free-riding, and cheating are all ways of defecting that are extremely costly to other people. Narrative plays a crucial role in monitoring whether other people are cooperating. Storytellers track the moral compass of other people and we often richly reward them for doing so. They do so by raising our passions—especially our sense of outrage over cheats, bullies, and upstarts and our sympathy for their victims. But in so doing, they perform a crucial service, namely tracking and monitoring other people's tendency to defect. The novel more or less explicitly began as a device for rooting out hypocrisy (see, e.g., Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, 1742 or Tom Jones, 1749). In its modern iterations, the novel often seems to play out those themes in a skewed or sophisticated way (see Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, 2001).


Cognitive theory of the novel is a field still in its infancy. Its parameters are changing all the time. But what can be said about it now is that it is committed in principle to narrative universals and their underlying substrate. The issues are being taken up by a large and growing group of scholars including David Herman, Joanna Gavins, Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconier, Ruven Tsur, Patrick Colm Hogan, Lisa Zunshine, Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, Dennis Dutton, William Flesch, and many others.


1. Donald, M. (2006), “Art and Cognitive Evolution,” in Artful Mind, ed. M. Turner.

2. Flesch, W. (2007), Comeuppance.

3. Gerrig, R. and G. Egidi (2003), “Cognitive Psychological Foundations of Narrative Experiences,” in D. Herman, Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences.

4. Herman, D. (2003), “Introduction,” in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences.

5. Keen, S. (2007), Empathy and the Novel.

6. Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1999), Philosophy in the Flesh.

7. Oatley, K. (2008), “ The Science of Fiction,” New Scientist, 25 June.

8. Schank, R. (1995), Tell Me A Story.

9. Steen, F. (2005), “ The Paradox of Narrative Thinking,” Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology 3(1): 87—105.

10. Tomasello, M. and J. Call (1997), Primate Cognition.

11. Zunshine, L. (2006), Why We Read Fiction.