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The Mysteries of Suspense

Why do we love suspense?

Most of what we regard as entertaining is suspenseful. Turn on your television and you will see contests (which man will she choose? Who will lose the most weight?), sporting events, murder mysteries, all sorts of different ways of generating suspense. Even the news attempts to be suspenseful ("Coming up after the break...")

A few psychologists and other academics have studied suspense, and one thing that they agree on-indeed it seems rather obvious-is that suspense is a form of uncertainty. We feel suspense because we aren't sure how the story or the game will turn out, and we become very interested in finding out. But here is where the mysteries start to emerge. First, obviously we find suspense to be very appealing, but what is so appealing about uncertainty? In fact, in the abstract at least, uncertainty is anything but an inherently pleasant experience. Second mystery: if suspense is uncertainty , then why is it possible to enjoy seeing a movie or reading a book more than once? You already saw the movie, you know what is going to happen, but still you are sitting on the edge of your seat. How can this be?

These questions are tough enough on their own, but I'm going to raise the bar by adding a third mystery, one that is relevant not just to suspense but to the broader question of our response to fictions. Why do we have any emotional response to fictions at all? Why is it that we can care so much about the fate of a movie hero that we know perfectly well does not exist?

In my book Caught in Play I argue that all these mysteries can be resolved if we follow those simulation theorists who assume that the human brain is specifically adapted to adopt the perspective of others as it assesses situations. We are social mammals with what could almost be called a super power, the capacity to see and even feel the world as others see and feel it.

This capacity probably evolved to facilitate cooperation. But once it is present, it becomes useful in many other ways. One of them is that the ability to adopt perspectives that we know are fictional is basic to the robust human imagination, And, again, our imaginations entail feelings as well as thoughts: We can not only imagine a scary dragon but be terrified of it.

That's why we can care about a story we know to be fictional. It also explains how we can feel suspense even when we know how the story ends. Knowing the ending doesn't interfere with our ability to place ourselves in the situation of the characters in a story, and once we do that we can suspend our knowledge of the ending in the same way as we suspend our knowledge that the situation is fictional. Our ability to enjoy suspenseful games and fictions is based on our easy ability to separate these from our knowledge of the world from our own perspective.

That goes a long way towards addressing the first and third questions above, but not the first; it still remains unclear why we should find uncertainty so enjoyable. I'll have something to say about that in a future post.

To learn more please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo provided on flickr by Save vs. Death.