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Why we fall into a good book

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 07:00 AM

We tackle a question from a listener, this time about storytelling. To answer it, we turn to the brain of Jonathan Gottschall, a writer who has devoted much of his early career to understanding why humans relish the well-spun saga, the epic tall tale, the sob-inducing ballad, the ... well, you get it ... 

The Question:

Elizabeth from Boston asks (for full comment, see here):

"I don't know about you, but I really love to read a good novel. There is something really special to me about this ... where you're doing literally nothing but staring at a bound pile of papers for many hours and yet your mind couldn't be more active. My question is, what exactly is happening there? How is it that we can go from interpreting little symbols to acquiring an experience that we didn't even actually experience? WHAT MAKES THE PAGE DISAPPEAR?"

The Answer:

Wouldn’t it be great if the holodeck were real? In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the holodeck is a sort of walk-in closet that allows people to simulate virtually anything in absolutely authentic sensory detail. I watched Next Generation avidly as a teenager, often dreaming of the uses I could make of such a device -- from amorous exploits, to saving the world, to playing shortstop for the Mets.

But I already had a holodeck and I was already wearing it out simulating these feats and more. The imagination is an awesome evolutionary adaptation that allows people to teleport mentally into alternative worlds. While the imagination doesn’t give us the perfect sensory simulation of the holodeck, it still gives an engrossing and authentic sense of what it would be like to live different scenarios (and in the case of dreams, the imagined world is as convincing to the dreamer as real life). Thanks to the imagination, people can try out the consequences of an action -- say confronting a bully or asking someone out on a date -- without the risk of trying out the action for real. The imagination gives us, in other words, the near magical ability to experience what “we didn’t even actually experience.”

In terms of evolutionary priority, the imagination comes first. But once we developed internal holodecks it probably didn’t take us long to discover that we could upload stories onto them for kicks and edification. So we can think of a story -- from a novel to a film to a non-fiction narrative -- as a simulation we run on the mental machinery of the imagination. Instead of having to construct the imaginative world on our own, however, the story can be seen as a set of instructions for building a whole world -- line by line, detail by detail -- in our heads.

And the simulation is so powerful that it really can seem like we’ve passed straight through the page and into a parallel universe. Here’s why:all of us understand that fiction is about fake people and fake events. But this doesn’t stop the unconscious centers of our brains from processing it like it's real. When the protagonist of a novel is in a bad fix we know it’s all pretend, but our hearts still race, we breathe faster, and stress hormones spike our blood. When fictional zombies attack, we feel sick with real fear; when Old Yeller dies we are floored by real grief. And when something sexy or dangerous befalls a protagonist, we feel aroused or afraid. FMRI studies show when we experience these things, our brains light up as though that thing were happening to us, not just to the characters. So novels make us feel like we’re experiencing an alternative reality because, from the brain’s perspective, we actually are.

When we are living in the imagination it often seems that the real world fades, but the thing to remember: it does not. Not really. Consider “highway hypnosis”: our brains can drive our cars even when our conscious minds are lost in intense Walter Mittyesque fantasies. The same goes for sharing in a story. The brain is still registering our surroundings, which is why we can walk to work even as an audio book takes us to the Starship Enterprise.


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Comments [3]

In response to Sarah:
I remember reading about a study SOMEWHERE-- can't seem to find it now, but maybe another fan will step in and help here-- that sad books and movies actually make us happier people. It follows like this: You watch Romeo and Juliet, cry your eyes out, walk out of the theater, and spend the rest of the evening contemplating how incredibly fortunate you are that you and your significant other don't come from feuding families resulting in your own demises. Sad books and movies make you feel the pain of bad things that happen, but also make you grateful that it happened a step removed, rather than directly to you; you glean the wisdom to be had from those experiences without having to endure the potential long-term effects, such as depression or PTSD, and walk away feeling grateful for all the ways your life is not tragic.

OR, if you read a tragedy and it reminds you of a tragedy equally terrible from your own life, there is at least the comfort of knowing you are not alone in your grief.

Make sense?

Nov. 27 2012 01:30 PM

I'm very interested in this topic. It has always annoyed me that I can become so engaged in a novel that I read the whole thing in a day, but often spend the same amount of time trying to get through a few pages of a textbook. What I find strange about this explanation is that if our brains function similarly when we actually experience something and when we imagine it, then why do we read sad stories? I would desperately want to avoid the death of a friend in my real life, so why so often are characters killed in fiction? What is appealing about being sad? Can sadness be appealing in someone’s real life as it is in their fictional one?

Nov. 26 2012 04:10 PM

Thanks guys, this was both enlightening and delightful (almost said "awesome"). I hope to hear more about the details of imagination in future episodes and on the blogs (especially when it comes to reading and storytelling, which I'm sure you can sympathize with); it's a topic that has been of profound interest to me. But of course, the topics you cover never fail to please.
Your devoted fan,

Nov. 25 2012 04:49 PM

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