Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Lazy Mindreader: a new perspective on “mindreading” from the study of language and narrative

How is social cognition shaped by our knowledge of language and stories?

2011 - 2015
Max van Duijn
NWO Spinoza premie 2010 NWO Spinoza premie 2010

I study a much-debated topic from the cognitive sciences: ‘mindreading’ (also known as ‘theory of mind’ or ‘mentalising’), using frameworks and analytical tools from the humanities.

My current research focuses on complex mentalising tasks (e.g. those involving multiple viewpoint layers: Sheila thinks that Mary believes that Peter intends…etc.) in relation to language and literature. The key findings of my PhD thesis (due April 2015) suggest that handling of such mentalising tasks in actual discourse and interaction differs quite substantially from how this has been implemented in experimental and theoretical paradigms throughout a range of fields, including experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and literary studies. My mission for the coming years will be to refine and operationalise this suggestion, and to put it to the test. To that effect, I will pursue the interdisciplinary approach of my PhD by combining theoretical and empirical methods rooted in the humanities (narratology, theoretical linguistics, corpus linguistics) with experimental work in collaboration with psychologists and neuroscientists.

From January-July 2014 I was based in Oxford as a visiting researcher attached to the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group (SENRG), Department of Experimental Psychology. This research group, headed by Prof Robin Dunbar, provided the perfect environment for the collaborative part of my PhD research project. Also, in Oxford I was co-convenor of the TORCH Drama & Cognition sessions, a series of six discussion meetings bringing together students and advanced researchers from a variety of disciplines across the humanities and sciences.

In 2013 I have co-initiated the Fraternity Friendship Study (FFS), a currently running longitudinal investigation of friendship and social networks among European students, in collaboration with Prof Anna Rotkirch (Väestöliitto, Helsinki), Dr Tamas David-Barrett (University of Oxford), and Prof Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford). One of the areas of interest is mentalising in relation to social network formation.

In June 2014 I was selected as a popular science blogger featured on the "Faces of Science"-webpage of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW): http://www.kennislink.nl/facesofscience/wetenschappers/max-van-duijn--3

Supervisors at Leiden University are Professor Ineke Sluiter (Classics) and Professor Arie Verhagen (Cognitive Linguistics). For the Hilary and Trinity terms of 2014 Max van Duijn will be at Oxford, affiliated with the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group (SENRG) headed by Professor Robin Dunbar. As a part of his visit he will also be organising a series of discussion sessions on drama and social cognition together with Dr. Felix Budelmann and Professor Laurie Maguire. In addition, Van Duijn cooperates with Professor Anna Rotkirch (University of Helsinki), Dr. Tamás David-Barrett, and Professor Robin Dunbar on the Fraternity Friendship Study, a longitudinal study investigating social networks and individual wellbeing within a European fraternity.

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