Why do we long for fictional worlds?
Avatar fans: wanting to live in the movie isn't insanity
Posted Jan 16, 2010
A recent (and widely commented on) CNN.com article reports that some viewers of the film Avatar are so desperate to occupy the fantasy world of the film that the thought of having to return to day-to-day reality here on earth leaves them depressed or even suicidal. "When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed ... gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning," wrote one young man on a fan forum.
This may sound somewhat extreme, but this is simply an example of a common phenomenon I call "getting caught up" and which a number of psychologists have studied under the label "narrative transport." The fact is that it's fairly normal for human beings, at least in our society, to become so immersed in stories that we feel like we are actually there. And if we really like the story we become caught up in, we don't want to leave it-as when you don't want to put down a book you're reading, or don't want it to end.
The work of developmental psychologist Paul Harris helps us to understand why human beings are so likely to become caught up in stories. By the age of two, children's play includes complex pretend episodes that are based on imagining what some situation-such as being a firefighter or a princess-would be like. In other words, even very young children can project themselves into an imaginary situation and proceed to consistently think and talk from that situation, keeping it separate from the real world. They don't have to plan this, they just take off and go.
Michael Tomasello's work on the differences between cognition among non-human primates and humans provides a compelling explanation for this remarkable ability. Tomasello attributes much of the difference between the mental abilities of humans and our closest relatives to our unique ability to put ourselves "in the mental shoes" of others and easily grasp what they are up to. This cognitive ability to adopt other perspectives is what makes elaborate pretend play so easy even before our brains are fully developed. And it is also what makes it possible for adults to plunge themselves into a fiction so deeply that-for awhile-it seems and feels like the fiction is real.
For better or for worse, we live in a society in which the capacity for becoming caught up in fictions like movies, television, novels (as well as games like sports contests) is a fundamental part of our way of life. The joys of becoming caught up in entertainment are a big part of what many of us live for. In this sense, we are like those of firm religious faith who believe that a genuine paradise awaits them, except that we don't even have to die to get there.
So, when we read about weird people who don't want to come back to this world after visiting the vivid reality of another, we might want to consider if they are really so weird. I suspect that most of us have had the same experience at some point.