Theory Of Mind

By | Saturday, February 05, 2011 1 comment
My treadmill died at the tail end of last summer. It was eight, maybe ten years old and I'd already replaced several parts on it. So I gave it up for dead and joined a gym. I've left it sitting in my basement because... well, it's really frickin' heavy and awkward to move.

Now, remember that little flood I had a while back? I'd gotten everything dried out a while ago, but I've been out of town enough that this has been the first weekend I had to start straightening things out again. And I decided to take the treadmill upstairs and out to the garage. Myself.

Did I mention that it's heavy and awkward? 160-odd pounds, which is not even remotely distributed evenly. Needless to say, it took a bit of effort on my part. (I've taken it apart for repairs before. It doesn't come apart quickly or easily. Hence my decision to just haul it up in one piece.) It also shouldn't surprise people that there was some shouting as I hefted this monstrosity up the steps. "C'mon! Get up there!" as I was trying to get to the next step. "Oh, no, you don't!" if it started to slip.

As I was nearing the top of the stairs, my adrenalin was really on overdrive. I seem to recall taunting something to the effect of, "I will not! Be defeated! By a fucking! Treadmill! My house! My rules! I win!"

Obviously, the treadmill didn't respond. I didn't expect it to. And despite how I was shouting at it, I know it wasn't deliberately trying to make things difficult for me. I am fully aware that it's an inanimate object. But I still spoke and at least partially acted as if it were imbued with intelligence.

Afterwards, I happened across this article which discusses a concept called the "theory of mind." The basic notion is that people are able to think about how others might be thinking. "That guy must be in a big hurry to race through that stoplight like that." You can project/deduce motivations and thought processes of people in situations where you don't know for sure what they're thinking.

In fact, studies suggest that we humans are really hard-wired to think that way. So much so that we often ascribe personalities to inanimate objects. Like our car. ("Come on, baby, start for me...") Or our computer. ("Don't you dare hang, you piece of...") Or our treadmill. (See above.) This is not at all uncommon. And it's why we have no problems whatsoever when we see something like this...

That the teapot and clock and everything have faces and are talking and dancing is such a minor leap for our brains that we buy into it without a second thought, despite it being a really absurd notion. Ascribing those ideas to animals is even less of an issue. Have you ever heard ANYONE question why Scooby-Doo talks? Plenty of people make fun of his speech impediment, but never the fact that he shouldn't be able speak to have a speech impediment in the first place!

But here's why I'm bringing it up. for as natural as this theory of mind comes to us, it's really not utilized very much in comics. Yes, there's a fair number of talking animal comics out there (from Pogo to Tawky Tawny), and many human characters talk to objects as we do (Spider-Man talking to a gargoyle he's sitting on, for example) but for as deeply embedded as this idea is on our collective human psyche, I find it a little surprising we don't see more of it. I'm not suggesting that Batman should start chatting with his utility belt, obviously, but in the realm of visual fiction, why does this "theory of mind" show up seemingly so much more in animation than comics?
Newer Post Older Post Home


As always, really enjoy your blog. I think in comics, and arts in general the entire project is one big manifestation of the "theory of mind" phenomena. To figure out how characters are going to interact, and to answers problems presented by plot, and everything else that goes into making a comic, all seem to depend on the ability you are talking about. In other words, the whole process is a meta-theory of mind exercise.