Keith Oatley: The Science of Fiction

[Readings] (08.19.08, 1:51 pm)

This article describes a study done by Oatley and some others on the cognitive effects of reading fiction. The study finds that fiction specifically enhances the ability of readers to empathize and understand emotions. The suggested reason why this occurs is because in reading fiction, the reader simulates the characters mentally, and thus builds a better model of human emotions.

The article does not address more specific qualities, such as how the reader simulates and how knowledge is gained from this. Some open questions I might have are whether the reader is absorbing the protagonist’s emotions as the correct ones, or if the reader is vicariously experiencing the situations and merely correlating his or her own emotions with those of the protagonist. I would lean towards the latter, but the question is open.

The study specifically finds that there is a distinction between this empathy when the story is rendered as a documentary versus fiction. This suggests that there is something special about fiction that enables a certain kind of empathetic processing. Another open question is what is so special about fiction? A possible answer is that fiction frames a situation as a safe cognitive playground where the reader can choose how to experience certain roles. A documentary misses this because it frames the situation as factual, thus restricting the reader’s freedom to “experience as”.

Oatley explains: “In our daily lives we use mental models to work out the possible outcomes of actions we take as we pursue our goals. Fiction is written in a way that encourages us to identify with at least some of the characters, so when we read a story, we suspend our own goals and insert those of a protagonist into our planning processors.”

The idea presented here is directly in line with the notion of simulation, developing an imaginary frame and executing it. This idea continues:

“This is why I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. And it is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Interesting things can be extended from this: Roleplaying and games especially. Roleplaying has been demonstrated to have uses in therapy, and it has been suggested in several places that it helps the players develop themselves emotionally (a conclusion I can vouch for based on personal experience). However, both of these have the capacity to be non-developmental, discouraging critical and emotional reasoning. This conflict resembles the conflict framed between Turkle’s view of games and computers as evocative, versus other critiques of games and geek culture as reactionary and exploitative.

That aside, the study still finds significant positive power within fiction, and connects it to the ideas of modeling and simulation.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorOatley, Keith
TitleThe Science of Fiction
JournalNew Scientist
Extra<a href="http://hdap.oise.utoronto.ca/oatley/">Keith Oatley's homepage</a>
Tagsnarrative, fiction, specials, simulation
LookupGoogle Scholar

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