I walk through the swinging doors into the kitchen of Casa Ristorante, somewhat quieted but still bustling after dinner rush, and see Sam, a fellow server, patting her pockets with an expression of consternation. “It’s in the Florida room,” I say, referring to one of the areas reserved for larger parties in the restaurant. Her expression changes instantly to one of confusion, and then, after only about a second and a half, she smiles and laughs.
“I was thinking I should’ve gotten a text back by now,” she says, heading for the doors I just passed through. The entire exchange happened in the span of about five seconds. What made Sam’s expression change before my eyes was her ceasing to worry over the possibility that she’d lost her phone. But then she had to wonder how I could have possibly known that it was her phone she was worried about when I came in the kitchen and saw her patting herself. Before long it dawned on her that we’d just been sitting in the Florida room a minute ago, both availing ourselves of the opportunity to check our messages and send a few responses.
She’d gotten up and left the room first. So she reasoned I could have seen her phone still sitting on the table afterward. Or perhaps it had even buzzed and lighted up with a new message. Having witnessed this, I’d immediately assume when I saw her patting herself she was looking for her phone, which I did, which she was. But it wasn’t just Sam and me trading information based on contextual, gestural, and emotional cues; she was also cued in to the person she was expecting a return text from. That person’s missing of a timing cue made her realize something was amiss.
Sam and I weren’t literally reading each other’s minds, but we did go through a process of deduction that enabled each of us to know what the other was thinking. Humans rely on this type of mind reading and helpful coordination so naturally we take it for granted. We are so given, in fact, to casting about for clues about the workings of other minds that we put considerable time and energy into trying to understand the intentions behind events with purely natural or accidental causes—things which occurred in the complete absence of any mind’s intentions.
Psychologists call this capacity for taking the perspective of others and reasoning about their thoughts and feelings theory of mind. Because we take it so much for granted though, it may seem a strange thing to study scientifically. But humans, despite glimmerings in a handful of the usual suspects—apes, dolphins, that bird Alex—are alone in their uncanny ability to deduce what’s going on in the minds of other humans. (Dogs also have an amazing talent for reading people though.) And the going theory about the social difficulties autistic people have is that their theories of mind are underdeveloped. Theory of mind has even been successfully defined operationally in studies designed to investigate when it first emerges in children. The idea is to stage a scene in which the child witnesses someone placing, say, a briefcase in a room before leaving. Then the child witness another person come in and move the briefcase to another location in the room. Finally, the child is asked where the first person will look for the briefcase upon returning to the room. Before about age four, most kids answer that they’ll look where the briefcase actually is instead where it has been moved unbeknownst to them.
Now imagine theory of mind developed through a process of natural selection—possibly at the level of the group—because it offered advantages by giving people a greater ability to both manipulate and coordinate with others. In lockstep with this development, though, people began more and more to apply their mind reasoning to entities without brains—even entities that were completely imaginary. This is how evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering accounts for the mental underpinnings of religion. Our instinct for getting into each other’s heads is so strong, he argues, that it’s difficult for us to imagine anything happening without some intention behind it. If a tsunami kills thousands, well then we must’ve done something really wrong and the mind behind the tides is letting us know about it.
I recently read To the Lighthouse for a graduate seminar on Representations of the Read in Literature. Alongside it, I read Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson and The God Instinct by Jesse Bering. Their theory, though they differ in regard to the importance of group selection and the propositional specifics of religion, is that religion, and our relations with the dead, serve as an adaptation to foster group cohesion, encourage cooperation and discourage cheating. Bering focuses too on theory of mind, arguing that our ability to consider what others are thinking carries with it the danger of our applying it where it doesn’t make rational sense. We apply theory of mind to the dead, who having no brains have no mind. We also see minds behind random occurrences, troubling us with concerns over what message God may be trying to send us when something terrible happens.
Woolf’s parents died when she was young—her mother when she was 13, her father when she was 22—and To the Lighthouse is often called an elegy. If Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are her parents, she struggles, through various characters, perhaps most starkly through Lily Briscoe, the painter, to face with clear eyes and perfect honesty both her feelings of love and reverence and her awareness of their pettiness and their limitations. Woolf obviously applied her theory of mind to her dead parents, but what insight does this bring to the novel? Bering’s theory is unnecessary. Anyone can see that Lily wants Mrs. Ramsey’s approval even as she realizes she’s taken a path the lovely woman knows nothing about. So, while it’s true the mother continues to live, the idea is so basic and so intuitive that it’s difficult to see what’s to be gained by using it.
Is there some lesson about altruism in To the Lighthouse? In a sense, the inner workings of the characters deal primarily with their roles in the world, in society. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are admirable figures, and no one can quite live up to them. But they do not exhaust the range of humanity. Any individual, or couple, is limited, and often in ways those close to them find oppressive. Mrs. Ramsey knows nothing about the art that obsesses Lily. Mr. Ramsey, preoccupied as he is with his standing in history, his failure to reach R in the alphabet of human accomplishments, is needy of his wife, demanding of his children, and fiercely self-absorbed. To live up to their examples—but how can one follow the example of beauty or brilliance?—while being aware of their flaws, to sort out what the force of the love for this family is compelling each of those who experience it toward, to love, to seek intimacy, even unity, while at the same time accepting their uniqueness and equally reverencing their own contributions, this is the dilemma they are all faced with. The overwhelming presence of these figures speaks to their role as parents, as if at some level Woolf failed to create a new cast for her drama by assuming everyone felt toward her parents the way she must have, and it lies at the heart of the stories intensity, its exquisite rendering of moment-to-moment thought and experience in rhythmic ebbings and flowings.