May 2022: A Telling Story at Science Festival 'Expeditie NEXT'

Reading minds through stories at Science Festival Next
On May 6th, the Frysian city of Franeker, that until the 19th century had a university, hosted Expeditie Next. This is a science festival hosted by the Dutch Nationale Wetenschapsagenda, a sort of think tank for the future of science involving many societal partners, including universities. We were happy to be part of this festival and have the opportunity to immerse children (and parents) in Max van Duijn’s VENI project ‘A Telling Story’, which concerns mindreading through stories. 

Via a simple computer setup, that can be seen in the pictures below, children were confronted with a pre-made (Dutch) fantasy story that ended abruptly. We asked them to continue narrating the story in the way they liked. The point of doing so is that children (often without realizing) almost immediately assume story characters’ perspectives. They start reasoning from characters’ desires, emotions, and beliefs, as is shown in the way children continue narrating the story. And being able to see the world through another person’s eyes is exactly what mindreading is!

An example story
One of the stories is about this boy Jan, who wants to go on movie date with his crush, Sophie. Jan is too shy to ask his crush directly. Thus he asks Sophie's friend Petra on a date, and tries to persuade Petra to bring Sophie too. (Petra is the girl visible on the monitor on the photo.) The story ends with Petra and Sophie conferring about Jan’s request, and Sophie asking what Petra responded to Jan’s request. (You can follow the story children were shown in the video on the right!). And that is where the fun starts: how does the child continue this story, that is rich in social information? Is Petra for example unwilling to cooperate, because she realizes that Jan does not want her to know that he does not really intend to go with her? We italicized all the mental states at play in this story in the previous sentence, and if you explicate the essential social information in this way, it can get quite complicated as you see! 

The crux here is that in narrative contexts we usually have no problems with understanding and dealing with these situations. This is clear from the way children continued the story. Sometimes children let Petra ruin Jan’s plans by telling Sophie that she told Jan that she and Sophie did not feel up for a date, while at the same time having Sophie responding quite confused that she actually wanted to go out with Jan. So children know how to twist the plot of a potential happy love story. But sometimes children let Jan have the best day of his life, because they let Petra ask Sophie out as requested by Jan, and on top of that, let Petra make up an excuse to not show up after all, so that Sophie and Jan can have a date by themselves! Which is more than Jan hoped (and perhaps also deserved).

Narratives as playground for mindreading
The point here is that children can only create these plot continuations in a way that makes sense, if they understand what is going on in the narrative. They must reason about what story characters know, want, and feel, to continue the story in a way that makes sense and entices an audience. The debriefing for both parents and children was that they witnessed mindreading in narratives that was done by the children with little effort. (Petra explains this also in Dutch in detail in the video to the right). The result of children’s participation was a printed custom comic book that contained the story and the child’s continuation.

Some parents asked how this works for children on the autism spectrum, since they generally find it more challenging to do mindreading. This is something that we would like to study in the future, but not something we can ask in the current project, since we did not set out to collect medical information. But it could well be that narratives provide an easier context for individuals on the spectrum to learn reasoning about others’ minds. In the current project we employ a host of models and techniques from narratology and natural language processing to examine the language in which children couch their mindreading. 

Are you interested in having this experimental setup in your day care, book/reading festival, science exhibit, theme week at school? Please let us know by sending a message to the email address below! 

The stand and setup at Expeditie NEXT

A touch sensitive monitor displaying story character Petra


A closer look at the setup


The story as presented to the children (Dutch)


Petra explains to children how mindreading in stories works (Dutch)

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