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Why Is Entertainment So Entertaining?

Your brain on entertainment.

Key points

  • Humans love storytelling largely because imitation, or understanding what others are up to, is key to our social and cognitive processes.
  • The ability to take another person's perspective is what allows humans to become absorbed into a story.
  • Today's storytelling devices such as 3D movies make it very easy for people to plunge deeper into fiction.

Why do we love entertainment (celebrities, TV, music, etc.) so much? Stupid question, right? We love it because it's entertaining! So let me rephrase: Why are celebrities, TV, music, etc., so entertaining that many people spend almost every available hour engaged with them?

Human evolution and entertainment

The answer turns out to be similar to the question of why we love food that is laden with salt and fat: Entertainment taps into aspects of our evolutionarily conditioned mental and emotional heritage. Contemporary entertainment builds upon some very powerful built-in human neural processes, and as a result, it's sort of a Big Mac for the brain.

That doesn't mean that 25,000 years ago our ancestors were sitting around the fire and thinking, "This is really boring. I wish we had a flat-screen TV." But it's a pretty good guess that they were telling stories. After all, no anthropologist I know of has ever claimed to observe a human culture that doesn't value narratives of various sorts. Recent work in areas such as cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology goes a long way toward explaining why this is so.

The key to understanding the human lust for stories is to grasp the importance of imitation in our social and cognitive processes. We sometimes think of imitation as a rather low-level mental ability ("monkey see, monkey do") but true imitative behavior is highly complex and is probably limited to our species. True imitation entails not only doing what somebody else does; it also means understanding what that somebody else is up to.

Psychologist Michael Tomasello and others have suggested that our virtually automatic capacity—perhaps based on mirror neuron systems in our brains—to quickly grasp what other people are doing is the single most significant evolutionary advance that separates us from other primates. It is this that enables us to cooperate with others in building human culture and language.

Our easy ability to grasp perspectives other than our own is also what makes it so easy for us to enter into an imaginative situation such as a story. And we really do enter into stories. As developmental psychologist Paul Harris has pointed out, the imitative capacities of our minds enable us to almost completely occupy a fictional position, so that both our thoughts and feelings begin to be shaped more by the fiction than by our real-life situations. We feel that we are there, in the story, which is an experience that psychologist Melanie Green and her colleagues call "narrative transport."

Jump ahead 25,000 years now to a world in which there are 3D movies and surround sound and computer-enhanced imagery, all sorts of technologies that enable us to plunge deeper into our beloved fictions. It's like a powerful, mind-altering drug, except that it's legal and completely safe. No wonder entertainment is so entertaining.

More from Peter G Stromberg Ph.D.
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