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Getting Inside Your Head

What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture


Lisa Zunshine


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Hardback. xiii+217p. ISBN 978-1421406169. $29.95


Reviewed by Aristie Trendel

Université du Maine (Le Mans)



In her new book, Getting Inside Your Head : What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us About Popular Culture, Lisa Zunshine, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, continues her exploration of narrative in the light of cognitive science. Contrary to her earlier study, Why Read Fiction : Theory of Mind And The Novel, which focused on the novel, the current one extends to a surprisingly wider range of cultural representations such as films, plays, photographs, paintings, musicals, classic Chinese opera, mockumentaries or reality shows. In spite of the title, which announces a commitment to popular culture, high culture is by no means put aside. Her favourite [and recurrent] illustration is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and paintings by Chardin or Rubens sustain her gaze and enlarge the scope of her project.

Zunshine defines the genre of her work as cognitive cultural studies and though she tones it down as “a book-length thought experiment,” her definition does point to the fact that cognitive science is now part and parcel of cultural studies [xii]. The former offers the author the theory of mind, a term for the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes people attribute mental states to others through observation of their body language. A culture of greedy mind readers feeding upon endless fantasies of unimpeded access to the imperfectly sealed world of the other’s mind is a goldmine for those informed by the tenets of cognitive science. Thus mind reading is the book’s groundwork and Zunshine comes up with a new, essay-grown concept, embodied transparency that becomes the keystone of her analysis and serves not only to “describe the moments in fictional narratives when characters’ body language involuntarily betrays their feelings, particularly if they want to conceal them from others” but also to cluster them together [23]. The author dexterously captures a host of such moments and holds them up under the magnifying glass of embodied transparency. And this close inspection renders the work under scrutiny somewhat significant although Zunshine does make clear that this type of pleasure derived from mind reading in narrative is social and not aesthetic. Still there are rules to be respected for the embodied transparency to fulfil its promises, three according to the author, namely contrasts, transience and restraint and should they be followed, then we are granted those “‘aha!’ moments […] of superior social discernment and power” [81].

Although Zunshine’s operating concept keeps the author extremely focused on these fleeting moments of social intercourse, it does occasionally lead her to insights into a larger context. Thus in her discussion of cinéma vérité she pinpoints the passage to mock documentaries, “But where is the genre to go in order to retain its claim to emotional authenticity after it has reached the point of documenting unfakeable psychological experiences? […] So the mock documentary is an offshoot of cinéma vérité’s obsession with direct access to emotions” [109]. Besides, her determination to illustrate embodied transparency also takes her to contexts little accessible to non- specialists like the Chinese opera. With the help of scholars she makes her point - the Chinese actors should achieve an expression of emotion “over the stylized body language and literary heritage that they become second nature” [199]. Moreover, the cognitive perspective even absolves reality TV from the accusation of voyeurism since mind reading is “our most crucial and constant preoccupation […] as a social species that we can say that we like watching displays of emotion because they promise access to peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and we evolved to value such access tremendously” [120].

There is little doubt that embodied transparency can complement our understanding of narrative putting it in a novel perspective. But reading through the book the general reader could get the impression of an inflation of this perspective, especially whenever it is debatable whether it is embodied transparency that is at stake or another issue as in the analysis of the film Quiz Show. The spectator’s disappointment may not derive from the fact that the show did not live up to its promise of cognitive management but that they expected real competition and thus they were fooled.

However, the book could also appeal to a wider readership as it is clearly written with several pedagogic repetitions and is enhanced by pictures that corroborate the ideas. Moreover, the summaries that precede the ten chapters are written in a non- academic, highly informal style and the reader is occasionally addressed. For the specialists, an extensive bibliography accompanies the text. This study is certainly a boon for readers versed in “cognitive cultural studies.”



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