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‘Man's empathy comes from language and stories’

Man is nature's mind-reading champion: we are better able than any other living beings to empathise with others. This comes in part from our story-telling culture, according to Max van Duijn. PhD defence 20 April.

Actually, we can all read thoughts to some extent. In every conversation you try to put yourself in the place of the other person. You try to work out what he or she is thinking, feeling, hoping or expecting, so that you can adapt your communication accordingly. In more scientific terms: you gauge the intentional state of your interlocutor.

More the exception than the rule

Scientists agree that this is a typical human trait. Apes like chimpanzees and bonobos also have some ability to sense what their fellows want, but not to the same extent that we do. Humans can project their thinking to three, four or five levels of interaction.  To give an example: I can imagine what you think that I mean. 

But that is where the scientific concensus stops. Scientists have different opinions on such questions as when we apply this method. To date it was often assumed that we apply several orders of reflection about ourselves and the other person in every conversation. What do I want the person I am talking to to understand that I mean?  Having carried out extensive research, PhD candidate Max van Duijn believes that gauging different levels of intentional states is more the exception than the rule.  

Van Duijn's research focused on analysing stories, news items and discussions in which several different perspectives played a role. He also spent time with the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group (SENRG) in Oxford, where he conducted a re-analysis of experimental studies on our ability to gauge intentional states. 

Brain capacity

‘Gauging several orders of intentionality is a cognitively complex task. It's not something we do in every conversation, certainly not to the fourth or fifth level. We can do it under certain circumstances, but it would simply take up too much energy and brain capacity to do it with every human ineraction. The same applies if we are following a story. Whereas it used to be assumed that reading a story was more difficult if severaldifferent perspectives played a role, I show that the reverse is true: stories can reduce the cognitive burden.'

What is also remarkable, according to Van Duijn, is that our ancestors seven million years ago functioned at the same level as chimpanzees. In an evolutionary perspective that's a relatively short time ago. He maintains that since then people have become more clever - not only at individual level, but have also developed shared, socio-cultural solutions for handling our complex social environment. 

Text continues under video.

Van Duijn on his research


Van Duijn refers to these solutions as a 'toolkit'. We use these skills to deal with the majority of our daily interactions. 'Unlike animals, humans have a well-developed language capability, which means we are able to exchange information and tell stories. That way, we build large amounts of shared knowledge about what people feel, hope and think in particular situations. We then apply that knowledge in everyday situations. Often we don't need to work out the intentional state of the people we're talking to because we already have particular shared images in our mind.' 

It is only when discussions become really complex that people fall back on the ability to distinguish different 'levels' in a conversation. Van Duijn: ‘You see that with misunderstandings, for example. What often happens is that one person will raise the conversation to a meta level. Oh, you thought I meant that….’


Van Duijn's research is fundamental: the aim is to gain a better understanding of how human interaction works and what mental processes are needed for it to work successfully. He believes that his research will in time also make a contribution to better understanding social disorders, such as autism. 'If we understand how the toolkit of language and stories contributes to our empathy skills, we will also have a better idea of those instances where empathy is lacking.' 

Max van Duijn's PhD research was financed from the NWO Spinoza Prize awarded to Ineke Sluiter. She is also one of Van Duijn's PhD supervisors.

Come and listen

On 20 April – the day of his PhD defence – Max van Duijn is organising a symposium on language, literature and social cognition. Barbara Dancygier (UBC, Vancouver), Robin Dunbar (Oxford) and Herbert Clark (Stanford) will be talking on the subject. You are welcome to attend. Please register via promotie@mjvd.nl.

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