This Is Your Brain on Culture

How stories, poems, plays, movies and other arts matter

Why Don't We Doubt Spider-Man's Existence? (1)

In fictions, our brains believe the impossible. Why?

For those moments when we are really into a poem, story, movie, play, or even a comic book, we simply don't bother about likelihood and lifelikeness. We willingly suspend disbelief.  We believe the fiction, at least for the moment. We have what one reader described to me in a questionnaire as escapism, a feeling of joyful unreality, lack of any worry. Escapism does in fact play the key role, provided we understand what we mean by escapism.

Escapism in the arts means that we know we are not going to act to try to change the work of art. Our brains are not generating impulses to act to change what we are paying attention to the way our brains do in everyday life. In life, we act or at least contemplate acting on the basis of what we perceive or believe. But not with fictions. (In philosophical terms this is Kant's "disinterestedness," the basic attitude of humans toward art.) Ordinarily, our brains test the reality of the things in our environment with which we have to cope. Transported with a literary work, we do not plan to act, and therefore our brains stop testing the reality of what the literary work portrays--Spider-Man.

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In most of life, simply to survive, we need to be able to tell what is real (or probable) from the information our senses give us. I need to know whether that is really a Hummer bearing down on me or just a car chase on a movie screen. I need to know whether what I am seeing is a dream or reality. Were I the hunter-gatherer beloved of evolutionary psychologists, I would need to know whether I am really hearing a lion's roar or just some fellow-hunter's skillful imitation of one. The ability to decide these things would confer an evolutionary advantage, to say the least. Indeed, the inability to decide them would doom the organism. Hence this ability to judge probability or realism must be present very far down the evolutionary bush. It must involve the deepest of the systems for our emotions, particularly fear.

Yet, somehow, when we watch Superman jump over a building or when we read a fairy tale or science-fiction, we put this primeval ability aside. That is why our not doubting puzzles me so much. Babies begin to understand probability and realism as early as six months. As infancy researchers like Alan Leslie or Elizabeth Spelke have shown, even an infant could tell that something is odd when Spider-Man starts swinging through a cityful of skyscrapers on his webs. Yet in adult everyday life, we give up realism all the time for various kinds of media experiences. Our brains are behaving in a totally unadaptive wayone reason evolutionary explanations for literature fall flat.

The nineteenth-century poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge invented the term we use to describe this credulous aspect of our trance-like state of mind when transported by a literary work. He was justifying his writing about persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic (in the older sense of the word, extravagant or fantastic): "Kubla Khan," "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," or "Christabel." He asked that his readers grant him that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith. He asked us not to disbelieve, at least for the brief period of experiencing the poems, the improbabilities that he had written and that his readers were about to read. That stance, he said, constitutes a kind of imaginative or empathic belief, which he called "poetic faith."

Coleridge's phrase, "willing suspension of disbelief," has lasted more than two centuries, probably because it describes very well what we feel is happening in a lot of situations that Coleridge could never have imagined, like Spider-Man webbing his way among skyscrapers. When we read that "some rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born," we don't doubt. We have poetic faith in what we are reading or seeing. How can that be?

As we shall see, Coleridge's second phrase, "poetic faith" describes this strange phenomenon more accurately than willing suspension of disbelief. We don't just not-doubt. We believe. To see how and why we can draw on two lines of research in experimental psychology and one line of research in neuroscience. Stay tuned.

Some items I have referred to:

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. 1907 [1817]. Biographia Literaria. 2 vols. Ed. J. Shawcross. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ch. xiv.

Leslie, Alan M. 1995. "A Theory of Agency". Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate. A Fyssen Foundation Symposium. Ed. Dan Sperber, David Premack, and Ann James Premack. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 121-41.

Spelke, Elizabeth S., Ann Phillips, and Amanda L. Woodward. 1995. "Infants' Knowledge of Object Motion and Human Action." Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate. A Fyssen Foundation symposium. Dan Sperber, David Premack, and Ann James Premack. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 44-78.

I am also drawing on an essay of mine and my latest book:

Holland, Norman N. 2008. "Spider-Man? Sure! The Neuroscience of Suspending Disbelief."  Interdisiplinary Science Reviews 33 (4):312-320. Available at http://tinyurl.com/c4f6v8.

Holland, Norman N. 2009. Literature and the Brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation. Available at www.literatureandthebrain.com.

 

 

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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