A cognitive outlook on the reading experience as seen by the embodied simulation and the theory of mind: a theoretical framework and an example of application to Mrs. Dalloway.

  • Sara Boezio Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa - University of Warwick
Keywords: Cognitive narratology, Neuro-rhetorics, Mirror neurons, Zunshine, Immersion


This paper investigates the experience of a reader reading  literary narrative prose. In particular, we analyse and compare two notions from the domain of cognitive narratology, and in doing so, draw on recent contributions in neuroscience. The first notion is ‘embodied simulation’, conceived by the neurophysiologist Vittorio Gallese, a member of the team that discovered the mirror neurons; the second is 'theory of mind', that was originally formulated in philosophy e psychology, and whose potential for literary studies has been brought to light, albeit with some limitations, by narratologists, among which Lisa Zunshine and Alan Palmer. We begin by illustrating the theoretical bases of these two approaches. We then consider their main differences, and finally, we test them out by analysing several passages from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It appears that the mechanism of embodied simulation that supports embodied narratology is a fruitful heuristic apparatus that is fundamental in order to complement the theory of mind. The latter remains helpful, but given that it does not take account of the neurobiological inner workings of the reading process, it fails to account for primary modes of human interaction with other real persons, and similarly with the minds of fictional characters, that have been discovered with the help of recent neurological studies.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Sara Boezio, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa - University of Warwick

Sara Boezio completed her university studies both at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and at the University of Pisa. Her interests were concentrated on Renaissance literature and on the relationship between poetry and figurative arts; she studied particularly the poems of the painter-poet Bronzino. Subsequently she studied nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and wrote her MA thesis on Federico De Roberto’s essay production inside the framework of the aesthetic fin de siècle debate in Italy and France. She spent extended periods at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and in Lyon. Sara Boezio also has a vivid interest for questions in literary theory and cognitive poetics. In particular her interests lie in how the cognitive science can influence and contribute to studies in literature. Her essay on this subject, “La poetica cognitiva tra scienze cognitive e critica letteraria: presupposti e convergenze”, was published in 2011. Currently Sara Boezio is doing her PhD at the University of Warwick (UK).


Aziz-Zadeh, Lisa - Wilson, Stephen M., Rizzolatti, Giacomo - Iacoboni, Marco, “Congruent embodied representations for visually presented actions and linguistic phrases describing actions”, Current Biology, 16. 18 (2006): 1818-1823.

Baron-Cohen, Simon - Leslie, Alan - Frith, Uta, “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?”, Cognition, 21 (1985): 37-46.

Baron-Cohen, Simon - Leslie, Alan - Frith, Uta, “Mechanical, behavioral, and intentional understanding of picture stories in autistic children”, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4 (1986): 113-125.

Baron-Cohen, Simon, Mindblindness: an essay on autism and Theory of Mind, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1995.

Bennett, Max R. - Hacker, Peter M. S., Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003.

Bernini, Marco - Caracciolo, Marco, Letteratura e scienze cognitive, Roma, Carocci, 2013.

Boezio, Sara, “La poetica cognitiva fra scienze cognitive e critica letteraria: presupposti e convergenze”, Italianistica, 40.3 (2011): 19-46.

Borghi, Anna M. - Glenberg, Arthur M. - Kaschak, Michael P., “Putting words in perspective”, Memory and Cognition, 32 (2004): 863-873.

Brône, Geert - Vandaele, Jeroen (eds.), Cognitive poetics. Goals, gains and gaps, Berlin-New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 2009.

Butte, George, I know that you know that I know: narrating subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2004.

Calabrese, Stefano, intr. a Neuronarratologia. Il futuro dell’analisi del racconto, Ed. Stefano Calabrese, Bologna, Archetipo Libri, 2009: 1-27.

Calabrese, Stefano, Retorica e scienze neurocognitive, Roma, Carocci, 2013.

Casadei, Alberto, Poetiche della creatività. Letteratura e scienze cognitive, Milano, B. Mondadori, 2011.

Ceserani, Remo - Gallese, Vittorio, “Intervista a Vittorio Gallese”, Transpostcross.it (Rivista annuale - Bologna - Editore ODOYA SRL), 2012, consultabile all’url:


> Clark, Andy - Chalmers, David, “The extended mind”, Analysis, 58.1 (1998): 7-19.

Cosmides, Leda - Tooby, John, “The psychological foundations of culture”, The adapted mind, Eds. Jerome H. Barkow - Leda Cosmides - John Tooby, New York-Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992: 19-136.

Cosmides, Leda - Tooby, John, “Origin of domain specificity: the evolution of functional organization”, Mapping the mind: domain specificity in cognition and culture, Eds. Lawrence A. Hirschfeld - Susan A. Gelman, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994: 85-116.

Cosmides, Leda - Tooby, John, “Does beauty build adapted minds? Toward an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction and the arts”, SubStance, 30.1-2 (2001): 6-27.

Dennett, Daniel, The intentional stance, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1987.

Dunbar, Robin, “On the origin of the human mind”, Evolution and the human mind: modularity, language, and meta-cognition, Eds. Peter Carruthers - Andrew Chamberlain, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000: 238-253.

Edmondson, Annalee, “Narrativizing characters in Mrs. Dalloway”, Journal of modern literature, 36.1 (2012): 17-36.

Esrock, Ellen, The Reader's Eye: visual imaging and reader response, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Esrock, Ellen, “Embodying literature”, Journal of consciousness studies, 11.5-6 (2004): 79-89.

Farah, Martha, “The neural bases of mental imagery”, The Cognitive neurosciences, Ed. Michael Gazzaniga, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1995: 965-975.

Freeman, Margaret H., “Poetry and the scope of metaphor: toward a cognitive theory of literature”, Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: a cognitive perspective, Ed. Antonio Barcelona, Berlin-New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 2000: 253-281.

Gallese, Vittorio - Fadiga, Luciano - Fogassi, Leonardo - Rizzolatti, Giacomo, “Action recognition in premotor cortex”, Brain, 119 (1996): 593-609.

Gallese, Vittorio - Goldman, Alvin, “Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading”, Trends in Cognitive sciences, 12.2 (1998): 493-501.

Gallese, Vittorio, “The inner sense of action”, Journal of consciousness studies, 7.10 (2000): 23-40.

Gallese, Vittorio, “A neuroscientific grasp of concepts: from control to representation”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 358 (2003): 1231-1240.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Embodied simulation: from neurons to phenomenal experience”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive sciences, 4.1 (2005): 23-48.

Gallese, Vittorio - Lakoff, George, “The brain’s concepts: the role of the sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge”, Cognitive neuropsychology, 22.3-4 (2005): 455-479.

Gallese, Vittorio - Migone, Paolo - Eagle, Morris, “La simulazione incarnata: i neuroni specchio, le basi neurofisiologiche dell’intersoggettività ed alcune implicazioni per la psicoanalisi”, Psicoterapia e scienze umane, 40.3 (2006): 543-580.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Corpo vivo, simulazione incarnata e intersoggettività. Una prospettiva neuro-fenomenologica”, Neurofenomenologia. La scienza della mente e la sfida dell’esperienza cosciente, Ed. Massimiliano Cappuccio, Milano, Mondadori, 2006: 293-326.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Before and below theory of mind: embodied simulation and the neural correlates of social cognition” , Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 362 (2007): 659-669.

Gallese, Vittorio - Freedberg, David, “Motion, emotion and empathy in estethic experience”, Trends in Cognitive science, 11.5 (2007): 197-203.

Gallese, Vittorio - Migone, Paolo - Eagle, Morris, “Intentional attunement: mirror neurons and the neural underpinnings of interpersonal relations”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55.1 (2007): 131-176.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Mirror neurons and the social nature of language: the neural exploitation hypothesis”, Social Neuroscience, 3 (2008): 317-333.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Corpo e azione nell’esperienza estetica. Una prospettiva neuroscientifica”, postfazione a Morelli, Ugo, Mente e Bellezza. Mente relazionale, arte, creatività e innovazione, Torino, Allemandi, 2010: 245-262.

Gallese, Vittorio, “Embodied simulation theory: imagination and narrative. Commentary by Vittorio Gallese (Italy)”, Neuropsychoanalysis, 13.2 (2011): 196-200.

Gallese, Vittorio – Wojciehowski, Hannah, “How stories make us feel: toward an embodied narratology”, California Italian Studies, 2.1 (2011), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3jg726c2

> Gallese, Vittorio - Di Dio, Cinzia, “Neuroesthetics: the body in esthetic experience”, The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (vol. 2), Ed. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Amsterdam, Elsevier Academic Press, 2012: 687-693.

Gallese, Vittorio - Guerra, Michele, “Film, corpo, cervello: prospettive naturalistiche per la teoria del film”, Fata Morgana, 20 (2013): 77-91.

Gavins, Joanna - Steen, Gerard (eds.), Cognitive poetics in practice, London-New York, Routledge, 2003.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr., Embodiment and cognitive science, Cambridge-New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Glenberg, Arthur M. - Kaschak, Michael P., “Grounding language in action”, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9 (2002): 558–565.

Glenberg, Arthur M. - Gallese, Vittorio, “Action-based language: a theory of language acquisition, comprehension, and production”, Cortex, 48.7 (2012): 905-922.

Goldman, Alvin, “In defense of the simulation theory”, Mind and language, 7 (1992): 104-119.

Goldman, Alvin, Simulating minds: the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Goldman, Alvin (2009a), “Mirroring, mindreading, and simulation”, Mirror Neuron Systems. The role of mirroring processes in social cognition, Ed. Jaime A. Pineda, New York, Humana, 2009: 311-330.

Goldman, Alvin (2009b), “Mirroring, simulating and mindreading”, Mind and Language, 24.2 (2009): 235-252.

Goldman, Alvin (2012), “Theory of mind”, The Oxford handbook of philosophy of cognitive science, Eds. Eric Margolis - Richard Samuels - Stephen P. Stich, New York, Oxford University Press, 2012: 402-424.

Gopnik, Alison - Astington, J. W., “Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and the appearance-reality distinction, Child development, 59 (1988): 26-37.

Gopnik, Alison, “Theory of mind”, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Eds. Robert A. Wilson - Frank C. Keil, Cambridge (ma), mit Press, 1999: 838-840.

Graziano, Michael S. A. - Gross, Charles G., “The representation of extrapersonal space: a possible role for bimodal, visual-tactile neurons”, The Cognitive neurosciences, Ed. Michael Gazzaniga, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1995: 1021-1034.

Hauk, Olaf - Johnsrude, Ingrid - Pulvermüller, Friedemann, “Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex”, Neuron , 41 (2004): 301-307.

Herman, David, Narratologies: new perspective on narrative analysis, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1999.

Herman, David, Story logic: problems and possibilities of narrative, Lincoln-London, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Herman, David, Basic elements of narrative, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2009.

Herman, David (2013a), “Cognitive Narratology”, The living handbook of narratology, Eds. Peter Hühn - John Pier - Wolf Schmid - Jörg Schönert, Hamburg, Hamburg University (revised version; uploaded 13 March 2013), http://wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Cognitive_Narratology

> Herman, David (2013b), Storytelling and the sciences of mind, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 2013.

Hernadi, Paul, “Literature and evolution”, SubStance, 30.1-2, issue 94-95 - special issue On the origin of fictions: interdisciplinary perspectives (2001): 55-71.

Hernadi, Paul, “Why is literature: a coevolutionary perspective on imaginative worldmaking”, Poetics today, 23. 1 (2002): 21-42.

Hogan, Patrick C., Affective narratology: the emotional structure of stories, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick C., How authors' minds make stories, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hustvedt, Siri, “Three emotional stories: reflections on memory, the imagination, narrative, and the self”, Neuropsychoanalysis, 13.2 (2011).

Hutto, Daniel D., “The narrative practice hypothesis: clarifications and implications”, Philosophical explorations, 11.3 (2008): 175-192.

Iacoboni, Marco, Mirroring people. The new science of how we connect with others, New York-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Jahn, Manfred, “Windows of focalization: deconstructing and reconstructing a narratological concept”, Style, 30.2 (1996): 241-267.

Jahn, Manfred, “More aspects on focalization: refinements and applications”, Graat, 21 (1999): 85-110.

Jahn, Manfred (2005a), “Cognitive narratology”, Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory, Ed. David Herman - Manfred Jahn - Marie-Laure Ryan, London- New York, Routledge, 2005: 67-71.

Jahn, Manfred (2005b), “Focalization”, The Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory, Eds. David Herman - Manfred Jahn - Marie-Laure Ryan, New York, Routledge, 2005: 173-177.

Kahneman, Daniel - Tversky, Amo, “The simulation heuristic”, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Eds. Daniel Kahneman - Paul Slovic - Amo Tversky, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1982: 201-208.

Keen, Suzanne, Empathy and the novel, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Keysers, Christian - Kohler, Evelyne - Umiltà, M. Alessandra - Fogassi, Leonardo - Rizzolatti, Giacomo - Gallese, Vittorio, “Audiovisual mirror neurons and action recognition”, Exp Brain Res, 153 (2003): 628-636.

Kneepkens, E. W. E. M., - Zwaan, Rolf. A.,“Emotions and literary text comprehension”, Poetics, 23.1-2 (1995): 125-138.

Kohler, Evelyne - Keysers, Christian - Umiltà, M. Alessandra - Fogassi, Leonardo - Gallese, Vittorio - Rizzolatti, Giacomo, “Hearing sounds, understanding actions: action representation in mirror neurons”, Science, 297 (2002): 846-848.

Kosslyn, Stephen - Thompson, William L., “Shared mechanism in visual imagery and visual perception: insights from Cognitive science”, The new Cognitive neurosciences, 2nd ed., Ed. Michael Gazzaniga, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 2000: 975-985.

Kuzmicová, Anežka, “Presence in the reading of literary narrative: a case for motor enactment”, Semiotica, 189.1-4 (2012): 23-48.

Leslie, Alan M., “Pretending and believing: issues in the theory of ToMM”, Cognition, 50 (1994): 211-238.

Lewis, James, W., “Cortical networks related to human use of tools”, Neuroscientist, 12.3 (2006): 211-231.

Marino, Barbara F. M. - Gallese, Vittorio - Buccino, Giovanni - Riggio, Lucia, “Language sensorimotor specificity modulates the motor system”, Cortex, 48.7 (2012): 849-856.

Matlock, Teenie, “Fictive motion as cognitive simulation”, Memory and cognition, 32 (2004): 1389-1400.

Menary, Richard, “Writing as thinking”, Language sciences, 29.5 (2007): 621-632.

Minsky, Marvin, “A framework for representing knowledge”, The psychology of computer vision, Ed. Patrick Winston, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1975: 211-277.

Neurorhetorics , special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Ed. Jordynn Jack, 40.5 (2010).

Palmer, Alan, “The construction of fictional minds”, Narrative, 10.1 (2002): 28-46.

Palmer, Alan, Fictional minds, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Palmer, Alan (2010a), Social minds in the novel, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Palmer, Alan (2010b), “Storyworlds and groups”, Introduction to Cognitive cultural studies, Ed. Lisa Zunshine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010: 176-192.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann, “Brain mechanisms linking language and action”, Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 6.7 (2005): 576-582.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann, “How neurons make meaning: brain mechanisms for embodied and abstract-symbolic semantics”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17.9 (2013): 458-470.

Ravenscroft, Ian, “Folk Psychology as a Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2010 Edition, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/folkpsych-theory/

> Richardson, Alan, “Cognitive literary criticism”, Literary theory and criticism, Ed. Patricia Waugh, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 2006: 544-556.

Ricœur, Paul, Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique. II, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1986.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo - Gallese, Vittorio, “Mechanism and theories of spatial neglect”, Handbook of Neuropsychology (vol. 1), Eds. François Boller - Jordan Grafman, 1988: 223-246.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo - Sinigaglia, Corrado, So quel che fai. Il cervello che agisce e i neuroni specchio, Milano, Cortina, 2006.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Narrative as Virtual Reality. Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore-London, 2001.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, “Narratology and Cognitive Science: a problematic relation”, Style, 44.4 (2010): 469-494.

Salgaro, Massimo (ed.), Verso una neuroestetica della letteratura, Roma, Aracne, 2009.

Segal, Gabriel, “The modularity of theory of mind”, Theories of theories of mind, Eds. Peter Carruthers - Peter K. Smith, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996: 141-157.

Serino, Andrea - Farné, Alessandro - Làdavas, Elisabetta, “Visual peripersonal space”, Imagery and spatial cognition: methods, models, and cognitive assessment, Eds. Tommaso Vecchi - Gabriella Bottini, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2006: 323-335.

Speer, Nicole K. - Reynolds, Jeremy R. - Swallow, Khena M. - Zacks, Jeffrey M., “Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences”, Psychological Science, 20.8 (2009): 989-999.

Spolsky, Ellen, Gaps in nature: literary interpretation and the modular mind, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993.

Spolsky, Ellen, “Making ‘Quite anew’. Brain modularity and creativity”, Introduction to Cognitive cultural studies, Ed. Lisa Zunshine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010: 84-102.

Stockwell, Peter, Cognitive poetics. An introduction, London-New York, Routledge, 2002.

Taylor, Lawrence J. - Zwaan Rolf A., “Motor resonance and linguistic focus”, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61 (2008): 869-904.

Tettamanti, Marco - Buccino, Giovanni - Saccuman, Maria Cristina - Gallese, Vittorio - Danna, Massimo - Scifo, Paola - Fazio, Ferruccio - Rizzolatti,Giacomo - Cappa, Stefano - Perani, Daniela, “Listening to action-related sentences activates fronto-parietal motor circuits”, J. Cogn. Neurosci., 17 (2005): 273-281.

Turner, Mark, Reading minds: the study of English in the age of Cognitive science, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Tversky, Barbara, “Spatial perspectives in descriptions”, Language and space, Eds. Paul Bloom - Mary A. Peterson - Lynn Nadel - Merrill F. Garrett, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1996: 462-491.

Vermeule, Blakey, Why do we care about literary characters?, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Williams, Raymond, The long revolution, Harmondsworth (uk), Penguin, 1965.

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway, trad. it. La signora Dalloway, Ed. Nadia Fusini, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2013.

Zunshine, Lisa, “Theory of mind and experimental representations of fictional consciousness”, Narrative, 11.3 (2003): 270-291.

Zunshine, Lisa, Why we read fiction: theory of mind and the novel, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2006.

Zunshine, Lisa, “Teoria della mente e romanzo poliziesco”, Neuronarratologia. Il futuro dell’analisi del racconto, Ed. Stefano Calabrese, Bologna, Archetipo Libri, 2009: 53-98 (trad. it. della terza parte del volume Zunshine 2006: 121-156).

Zunshine, Lisa (2010a), “What is Cognitive Cultural studies?”, Introduction to Cognitive cultural studies, Ed. Lisa Zunshine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010: 1-33.

Zunshine, Lisa (2010b), “Lying bodies of the Enlightenment”, Introduction to Cognitive cultural studies, Ed. Lisa Zunshine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010: 115-133.

Zunshine, Lisa (2010c), “Theory of mind and experimental representations of fictional consciousness”, Introduction to Cognitive cultural studies, Ed. Lisa Zunshine, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010: 193-213.

Zwaan, Rolf A., “Effect of genre expectations on text comprehension”, Journal of experimental psychology: learning, memory, and cognition, 20.4 (1994): 920-933.

Zwaan, Rolf A. - Stanfield, Robert A. - Yaxley, Richard H., “Language comprehenders mentally represent the shape of objects”, Psychological Science, 13.2 (2002): 168-171.

Zwaan, Rolf A., “The immersed experiencer: toward an embodied theory of language comprehension”, Psychology of learning and motivation, 44 (2003): 35-62.

Zwaan, Rolf A. - Taylor, Lawrence J., “Seeing, acting, understanding: motor resonance in language comprehension”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135.1 (2006): 1-11.

Zwaan, Rolf A., “Time in language, situation models, and mental simulations”, Language Learning, 58.Suppl.1 (2008): 13-26.

Zwaan, Rolf A. - Taylor, Lawrence J. - de Boer, Mirte, “Motor resonance as a function of narrative time: further tests of the linguistic focus hypothesis”, Brain and Language, 112.3 (2010): 143-149.

How to Cite
Boezio, S. (2014). A cognitive outlook on the reading experience as seen by the embodied simulation and the theory of mind: a theoretical framework and an example of application to Mrs. Dalloway. Between, 4(7). https://doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/1161
From the Fields of Theory. Rethinking the Functions of Rhetoric