The Simulation Theory, or How We Animate the People We Know and the Fictions We Read

The simulation theory takes the theory of mind a step further. Instead of trying to guess what others are thinking, we humans put ourselves in the other’s shoes, as the saying goes, in order to feel what the other is feeling.

Recent developments in cognitive science suggest that this happens automatically because of mirror neurons in the brain. Vermeule paraphrases studies on macaque monkeys by physiologist Vittorio Gallese: “Mirror neurons work like this: when one monkey performs an action certain motor neurons fire. When a second monkey observes the first monkey performing that action, the same neurons fire in him as fire in the monkey performing the action. Several experiments have strongly suggested that mirror neurons operate in humans, too; in one experiment, the same muscles moved in the person observing an action as in the person doing the action” (40). (Watch “From Mirror Neurons to Embodied Simulation,” a talk by Gallese on his work.)

To see how humans empathize with others, even fictional characters, we just need to watch an audience watching a movie. The spectators will lean slightly as a runaway train goes around a bend, clench their fists when someone’s fingernails get pulled off, and cry when the main character’s heart gets broken.

We even empathize with someone we feel is doing something wrong, as British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock utilized to great effect in several films, including Marnie (1964). The title character is stealing money from the company safe when a cleaning woman arrives. On one half of the screen we see the cleaning woman starting to work, while on the other half we see Marnie working the safe. The audience watches in breathless suspense to see whether or not Marnie gets caught. Our own moral views on robbery make no difference to our ability to empathize.

Another example is the escape from Alcatraz by Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris in 1962. They dug through a cement wall with a spoon, climbed ventilation shafts and swam away. The currents of the bay are extremely strong, 300 times the amount of water in the Mississippi River at the Golden Gate, and the water is cold. Although the distance to Angel Island is not great, the rangers at Alcatraz say they couldn’t have made it. Even professional swimmers fail to make the distance. Even though they were all convicted bank robbers, everyone I have talked to about the escape hopes they made it. We put ourselves in their wet shoes, understanding and admiring their determination to win freedom.

In spite of our apparent ability to empathize with others, we cannot actually imagine their emotions without referencing ourselves. Our metaphor for empathy illustrates why we often fail to feel for others. When we put ourselves in their shoes, we are stepping in for the other, rather than trying to imagine what they are experiencing. If I love ice cream, it is very difficult to understand why someone else does not. If someone says, “I had the most delicious tripe last night,” and I don’t like tripe, all I can say is “Yuck!” We rarely say, “That must have been delicious!” When someone tells us that they have won an important job at a medical laboratory testing stool samples, we recoil instead of being happy for the person because we picture ourselves working with shit and do not relish that picture. Since some bigots cannot see themselves carrying out certain sex acts, they assume that these behaviors are “unnatural.” They do not understand that these actions may be natural and enjoyable for someone else. So the failure of the simulation theory is also a failure of the theory of mind.

We play empathy games with animals as well. We feel for the seal pup who was ostracized for his ginger hair and blue eyes, and we hope he is comfortable in his new home at Sochi Dolphinarium. We worry about cute animals with fur like the panda, critters that look beautiful to us (because primates are attracted to things that resemble brightly colored fruit) like the Quetzal bird, creatures whose strength we admire like the crocodile, but we don’t have much sympathy for the endangered lamprey. We don’t like to picture its snake-like body or imagine its round, jawless mouth attached to a thigh, sucking our blood. Even though lampreys are important members of their ecosystems and we will probably never be attacked by one, empathy games cause us to send our money to the Save the Panda fund instead.

We even empathize with objects. We feel for the lone peak and the abandoned home. We throw away our ratty teddy bear and old tennis shoes reluctantly. Some people cry as the drive their once-favorite car to the junkyard. On 24 May 2011, NASA announced that they were giving up attempts to contact the Mars rover Spirit, which had been caught for two years in a sand trap. We feel for its partner Opportunity as it rolls across the cold, red planet, and we are glad that it has some company since Curiosity landed in August 2012 (although the two rovers will never cross paths).

We cannot understand anything easily without referencing ourselves. We comprehend outer space, infernal Venus and black holes by imagining what would happen to our bodies if we went there. We count by tens because we have ten fingers. We measure the world by feet, thumbs (an inch), forearms (a cubit), the length between the fingertips of a man’s outstretched arms (a fathom), the distance a person can walk in an hour (a league), the amount of rice needed to feed a human in a day (the Japanese masu), the time it takes someone to blink (the Hindi nimesha). We talk about a head of lettuce, an ear of corn, the eye of the storm, the mouth of a river, the neck of the woods, the bone of contention, the heart of the matter. Everywhere we look, we see ourselves.

So, which is right: the theory of mind or the simulation theory? We don’t need to choose between these two models, Vermeule says, since both are probably true. In the example from the Hitchcock film, we sympathize with Marnie, which means that we have developed empathy. But she does not know at first that she is in danger, which means we have a theory of mind. We empathize with feelings that she has not yet had.

In order for a simulation to work, we must suspend our disbelief, but we are always in danger of getting carried away by the simulation. We must walk a fine line in order to get the benefits of imagination while avoiding the dangers of losing our footing in reality.

When imagining what others are thinking or feeling, we try to maintain some psychic distance. Limiting our empathy for fictional characters is not always easy though, as illustrated again so perceptively in Cervantes’ novel. During a puppet show in the second volume, Don Quixote is able to maintain enough psychic distance to criticize the artistic production, advising the boy narrating to simplify his style (fine advice from Don Quixote!). He breaks in yet again to point out an inaccuracy: the Moors never use bells in their minarets. The puppet master responds that many plays contain inaccuracies, and Don Quixote concedes, “apparently willing to allow that in some sorts of imitations of reality, strictly consistent verisimilitude is not necessary” (14), writes Robert Alter in Partial Magic (1979). Don Quixote, at this point, is able to distinguish between the artistic representation and himself, to stand apart from the narrative and view it critically.

Don Quixote’s critical buffer, however, evaporates when the heroine is threatened by Moors. Writes Alter, “In the next moment, then, the knight leaps sword in hand from the clearest recognition of the puppet show as an artifice to a total acceptance of it as a reality” (14). To save the embattled heroine, he cuts off the heads of Moorish puppets right and left, destroying the puppet master’s livelihood and nearly slicing off the hands of the puppeteers.

Once again, our hero is not the only madman in the room. We maintain psychic distance about as well as a drunken teenager at a rock concert. Consider how often people talk to characters on a screen. Watching a horror movie at home, I cannot help shouting, “Don’t go down there! Are you crazy? Why are you going down to the cellar? Why?” Some fans of Star Trek learn Klingon. Now that must be a useful language! (I confess I studied some myself: “chay’ Dochvam vllo’?”) Twilight fanatics have fought over which leading man is better, Edward or Jacob, actually hurting one another for the love of fictional characters who cannot love them back. A fan of Star Wars said, “This is the most important thing in the world to me, so don’t . . . ever . . . say that it’s just a film. It’s not just a film” (The People vs. George Lucas). One Harry Potter fan got a tattoo across his chest that says, “It’s real for us.” And of course, he is right!

(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon and a follow up to my post How Hominids Manage Tricky Social Situations: The Theory of Mind and Mindreading Games.)

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Print.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Marnie. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Universal Pictures, 1964. DVD.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.

2 thoughts on “The Simulation Theory, or How We Animate the People We Know and the Fictions We Read”

  1. O’Brien casts doubt on whether or not the thngis he describes truly happen because he wants to make a point: Truth is bigger than what happened. He even talks about happening truth and distinguishes it from Truth with a a capital T. I don’t think we can say the book is fair or unfair. It’s a novel, not a memoir, and even though he inserts himself into the novel, we cannot make the mistake of confusing Tim O’Brien the character with Tim O’Brien the author the two are not one and the same. By calling into question his stories’ veracity, he’s showing us two important thngis. First, that war memories are iffy at best, and that the men who fight are exposed to incredible mental and physical stressors that make them unreliable narrators (and this serves to highlight the horrors of the war for the reader). Second, that fiction is just as truthful as nonfiction. Just because a work of fiction didn’t happen does not mean it cannot get at some deeper human truth.

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