Metafiction, Theory of Mind and Unamuno

It’s been a long time since I last wrote anything about neuroscience and storytelling. The reason is pretty simple. It’s the thread in my research with which I struggle the most. Nevertheless I keep pursuing it because of two things: 1) to ground why I’ve never considered stories or fiction to be “different” worlds but parts of our world; and 2) to establish a correlation between metafiction – as fiction about fiction making – not just with the acts of writing and reading as it has conventionally been studied, but also with the actual cognitive processes through which we apprehend fiction in our minds.

Norman Holland has also approached metafiction through neuroscience [1]. His proposal, however, is quite different. Holland’s basis rests on the materiality of the fictional artefact – mostly a book – that, still in the hands of a reader, becomes part of the story. He uses as example of this, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The cognitive problem posed by metafiction, according to Holland, is that the artifact becomes a conflicting entity between the two separate levels of reality belonging to the fictional world, on the one hand, and our own, on the other.

While this is true of many metafictions, as mentioned above, I also see a tight relationship between the cognitive process undergoing our engagement with fiction and the making of fiction staged in many metafictions. In other words, on top of exhibiting the processes of reading and writing, metafiction has also managed to evidence the underlying cognitive processes. Regarding the fiction/reality divide, evolutionary biologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides [2] conducted a series of studies that lead them to state that:

…although fiction often embeds real facts, places, events, and people, they are not necessarily or even usually marked off from the nonexistent ‘facts’ […] within a fictional narrative, everything (whether true in reality or not) has the same undiscriminated and largely indiscriminable standing, and all propositions are freely interwoven without the least regard to their extrinsic accuracy. (13)

This would seem to imply that we could get lost between the distinct reality levels of “fiction” and “reality”. As we know, this usually doesn’t happen. A separate cognitive process called theory of mind (ToM), also known as metarrepresentation, makes sure that we are able to tell when something is a representation and where or who it belongs to, so that we can map them accordingly [3]. Without metarrepresentation we would also get lost and be unable to tell from what we think to be the reality, and others’ perception of it – usually not diametrically, but subtly, different, (try to agree with anybody what the particular color of any given object is, or whether a room is cold/hot, to test this). Still what fascinates me about Tooby and Cosmide’s conclusion is that there seems to be a continuum of reality levels that can hardly be accounted for by the ontological divide of “fiction” and “reality”. This is where the whole thing becomes relevant for literary studies of metafiction.

Towards the end of Niebla (1914) [4] — Miguel de Unamuno’s master piece — the protagonist, Augusto Pérez is heartbroken and decides to commit suicide. Before doing it, however, he consults the author of the story. Without going into details, what comes after that is a dizzying deep philosophical dialogue on the existence, via the fictional or real status, of each man and the leaks of literary imagery in our everyday lives with fascinating highlights such as this:

– No, no existes más que como ente de ficción; no eres, pobre Augusto, más que un producto de mi fantasía y de las de aquellos de mis lectores que lean el relato que de tus fingidas venturas y malandanzas he escrito yo; tú no eres más que un personaje de novela, o de nivola, o como quieras llamarle. Ya sabes, pues, tu secreto. (279)

To what Augusto replies

– Vamos a cuentas: ¿no ha sido usted el que no una, sino varias veces, ha dicho que Don Quijote y Sancho son no ya tan reales, si no más reales que Cervantes? (279)

As it can be seen from the quote above, Unamuno termed his novel a nivola. The concept of nivola opposed the novel genre to realistic prose writing. Unamuno establishes an antagonism with realism not by means of fantasy or magic, but through the concept of reality itself and the way we apprehend it vis-a-vis fiction. Regardless of the conclusion the author and protagonist — or even us — might reach at the end of the dialogue, what we are witnessing in those pages is an essay on metarrepresentation. Both Unamuno and Augusto discuss the ways in which one or the other can be seen as more or less real/fictional. There is a mapping of their perspectives and the way in which they fit into them as either fictional or not.

Almost a hundred years after its publication it is not only possible but, from my perspective, even desirable to think of Niebla as a metafiction. All the conventional elements are there: prominence of the reader, self-consciousness, evidence of the story-making process, etcetera. However, in addition, Unamuno deals thematically — and very likely unknowingly — with the cognitive processes that go on when we engage with fiction: the lack of discrimination between reality and fiction in our minds and the processes that “put things in order”.

The approach to metafiction by means of neuroscience I wish to pursue is not only useful to see into the guts of these texts, but specially relevant to explain why metafictional traits have always been a part of literary production, i.e., I argue, because of our human concern with the very possibility of making fiction. At a basic level metafiction is self-conscious of its status as fiction, but in the larger picture it can also be seen as self-conscious of why/how humans make fiction. Finally, my other goal through this approach is help explain why there have been times in history when metafiction has occupied a more prominent place due to, perhaps, philosophical concerns reflected on a dominant genre, or, as we are currently witnessing, technological shifts that have not settled yet.


[1] Jaén, Isabel and Julien Simon. 2012. Cognitive Literary Studies: Current Themes and New Directions. 1st ed. Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture Series. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[2] Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 2001. “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction, and the Arts.” SubStance 30 (1): 6–27. doi:10.1353/sub.2001.0017.

[3] Zunshine, Lisa. 2006. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP.

[4] Unamuno, Miguel de. 1982. Niebla. 2. ed. Letras Hispánicas 154. Madrid : Cátedra.

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