Cindy Orr takes a look at the science behind story in her monthly blog post.
Why would we, with all the choices we have for spending our free time, sit down and read a story? Aristotle said it was because what he called poetics deals not with things that have happened, but with things that can happen. But why is that enjoyable?
Alberto Manguel put it this way: “Stories teach us who we are and where we are. They allow us to ask why and to imagine ourselves as someone or somewhere else. Readers can bring to life the world that another person, perhaps centuries and oceans away, has put into words for them and make it their own.”
Robert Penn Warren said that story is an image of life in motion, and because our own lives are so filled with distractions, accidents, daily living, and confusion, it’s very difficult to see the logic of our own lives. Fiction gives us story without all these distractions, so that we can more easily see the inner logic of life and enjoy a satisfying resolution to the confict presented.
Psychologist Dr. Keith Oatley proposes that narrative was the very first kind of simulation, but it ran on minds, not computers. And these simulations allow us to enter social contexts that otherwise we would never know.
We read for many reasons—to escape, for pure enjoyment, for education, to experience far away places and times—but now science is addressing the question of why we enjoy story so much, and surprisingly, the question has been posed largely by English professors, not scientists.
Dr. Brian Boyd, in his book On the Origin of Stories, proposes that if fiction were not beneficial to the evolution of the human race, those who didn’t enjoy it would thrive, the rest of us would not, and fiction would fade away as a human behavior. Story has not only not died out, but it has taken on new forms in audiobooks, movies, and videogames. Boyd agrees with Oatley that story is a simulator that trains our brains to be more flexible, and thus contributes to our evolutionary success.
English professor Dr. Lisa Zunshine was excited about the groundbreaking work of evolutionary psychologists and believed their work could help develop a new theory of literature. She began studying how the human mind handles a layering of story from more than one point of view. For instance, “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is pretty easy to understand. One of her theories is that the human brain can easily comprehend three different mental states at a time, but four is more difficult. It’s tough to juggle our “mindreading” when there are too many layers involved. The reason that Virginia Woolf’s fiction, for instance, is so hard to follow, is that she asks her readers to deal with six different mental states at a time. Experiments have shown that at the fifth level, understanding falls off by 60%. Dr. Zunshine’s work has led to a new division in the Modern Language Association dedicated to cognitive approaches to literature. Her next step? Working with doctors on brainmapping with an MRI machine to see exactly what happens when people read.
So…why do we enjoy story so much? Until we have more answers, I think we can assume that we read because we enjoy it, part of the enjoyment may be that we like to “read” other people’s minds, and that immersing ourselves in story may be good for the evolution of the human race. While we wait for more answers, I’m going to get back to my book.
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