How does fiction work? How can a novel or a short story drag us into an alternative universe and make us feel as though we are experiencing it? This was a listener question posed to the producers at Radiolab. Elizabeth from Boston put the questions beautifully:
“I don't know about you, but I really love to read a good novel. There is something really special to me about this minimum-external-stimulation maximum-internal-stimulation activity, 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?”
Radiolab asked me if I wanted to take a crack at answering the question. Here’s my response, which you can also read on their website.
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.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human