Metaphor and Metonymy

Metaphor and metonymy are usually regarded as figures of speech. Although the terms derive from literary theory, they might be better regarded as fundamental ways of thinking, of deep interest to psychology.

Entering Another's Experience

Psychologists are familiar with the idea of perspective taking, knowing some aspect of what another person is thinking. Only recently have they started to investigate the idea of experience-taking: entering the experience of another.

Books as Friends

However intimate our friendships, however much we value them, circumstance will have restricted our choice of people we can know. Books are friends we can choose without restriction.

The Imagined and the Real

Brain scans have shown something of what happens in our heads when we read statements that prompt the imagination as compared with those that are literal.

Suspicious Stories

I was asked recently by a journalist to comment on Tyler Cowen's TED talk on why we should be suspicious of stories.

Liking for Stories

Although most people like fiction in films, television series, plays, or printed books, not everyone likes the same thing. How does this happen?

Empathy and Fiction

Much of what we know about reading fiction predicts that it will move people towards empathy. But what happens when this idea is tested in psychological studies?

Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories

A taxi driver drops a couple off at a theater to see a play which is a murder mystery. They pay the fare but don't leave a tip. The driver rolls down the window and shouts: "The butler did it." Did he get his own back?

Narrative Empathy

Empathy has become a subject of much interest. It's of interest in fiction as we feel for characters in stories, in politics as we wonder what to feel for people in different social groups, and in history as we wonder about the emotions of people living in societies of the past.

Are Stories Useful?

Are stories just pastimes, or have they been important in human evolution? Are they frills, or are they like eyes and hands, useful adaptations that have contributed to the survival of our species? Literary Darwinism is a new movement in which it is argued that stories are adaptations.

Poetic Justice

We are all very good at knowing what other people ought to do. It's even been said that a pleasure that never palls is to point out when other people--friends, people at work, politicians--get it wrong.

Celebrity and Identification

We know that celebrities are important because they are ... celebrities. But what makes them so? And what psychological functions does following them, and finding out about them, have?

Does Art Imitate Life?

The idea that art may imitate life is at least as old as Aristotle's Poetics, the book that-in the West at least-is the most widely recommended text on how to write fiction. It's even recommended by screenwriters to screenwriters.

How to Write a Novel

Writing a novel is something that many people try, and even more people think about. The most important thing to know before you start is that you don't have a novel inside you. It emerges only as you begin to write.

Mind and Consciousness

If we think in the way that Lev Vygotsky (1962) proposed, mind isn't a container in which memories, thoughts, plans, and impressions can be inserted or from which they can be retrieved. It IS these memories, thoughts, plans, and impressions.

In the Minds of Others

People in the humanities have long maintained that the classics of fiction are good for you, and are important in the education of citizens. In her recent book, Not for profit, Martha Nussbaum takes up this theme and argues that the humanities are essential to democracy.

How Stories Influence Us

There are many kinds of social influence. A parent may coax, an employer may demand, a politician may exhort, an advertiser may suggest. In forms of this kind one person knows what another should think or do. But what about social influence in which people are not trying to persuade or control?

Emotions of Fiction

To say that fiction is all about the emotions is probably an exaggeration, but not much of one. When we see a movie, we want to be excited, or amused, or to get out our Kleenex. When we read a novel, we want to be moved. Why should this be?

Change Your Self: Read Fiction

People read fiction to travel to fictional worlds, where one's responsibilities are few and one's experiences are many. But fiction also enables us to change our personality. Maja Djikic and I, together with Sara Zoeterman and Jordan Peterson (2009), showed that when people read one of the world's great short stories, changes occurred in their personality.

Evolution, Play, Fiction

Amongst earthlings stories are uniquely human. Stories are deep in our psychology. But how deep? Are they a recent addition, dependent on the human acquisition of language, or do their roots go further back? 

Books and the Internet

One hears a lot of grumbling that although housemaids are thought once to have snatched half an hour below stairs to read the latest novel by Jane Austen, now people only Google and Twitter. "It's because of technology," say the grumblers. But writing-and-reading is the most important technology yet invented. Every technology has two parts. One is external. In writing and reading it's the marks on paper or some other medium. The other is internal. In writing and reading it's the skills to make and use the external marks. Each successful technology is taken up into society and creates a new niche, supported by new practices. The technology of writing and reading enables the externalization of thoughts, and it has led to the book, which has created a niche that is still thrives.

Prompting the Imagination

What can a writer do to bring a story alive in the mind of a reader? It's not just a matter of saying this happened and then another thing. The way in which a writer prompts the imagination can make a big difference. There have been brilliant advances recently in neuroscience and in literary theory, which give us a sense of what happens in the brain and mind when a writer depicts actions and scenes.

Other Bodies, Other Minds

Many people who've seen James Cameron's film Avatar say, "The special effects are good, but the movie is mindless." The special effects certainly are good, but the film isn't mindless. It's all about minds. The hero, Jake Sully, first enters by identification the mind of the military commander of a human mission to Pandora in the Alpha Centauri solar system, then second that of the anthropologist, Grace, who is trying to understand the Na'vi inhabitants of Pandora, in order to win them over. Third, by a piece of DNA magic, he enters the body of a Na'vi person and takes on a Na'vi mind, falls in love with a Na'vi princess, and becomes able to communicate with her mentally by a means that for humans is impossible.