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Fiction Addiction

Why do we love stories?

Imagine you find a magical device that allows you to enter an alternate universe as an invisible observer. Before entering, you know you will witness brutal, scarring things: the rapes and murders of women and children, bodies tortured, defiled, and dismembered. Seemingly decent men will reveal themselves as evil Nazis and sick maniacs. Watching, you will grow angry, tense, and scared—your heart will beat harder, your breath and sweat will come faster. When it’s all over, the bad men may torture you in nightmares. In waking life, you may find yourself more suspicious of strangers, and even your neighbors.

Do you want to use your magical device? If you answer, “Not a chance!,” then you’d be wrong. The magic device is a novel, and the fictional scenario I’m describing is from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo .

Why do most of us spend (waste?) hours per day absorbed in the fake dilemmas of fake people when we could be doing practical things like wooing mates or working for a promotion? The answer may seem obvious: fiction gives us joy. But it isn’t obvious that fiction should give us joy, at least not in the way it’s biologically obvious that eating or sex should give us joy. It is the joy of story that needs explaining.

The mystery of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian. How has the time-gobbling luxury of fiction not been eliminated? In short, no one knows for sure. But researchers are converging on a possible solution: the answer may lie in the intensely troubled nature of fiction.

The University of Toronto psychologist Keith Oatley argues that stories are the flight simulators of human life. Fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that parallel what we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead. In support of the “simulator” model, Oatley’s studies show that the more fiction we consume, the higher we score on tests of empathy and social ability. In other words, working through fictional social dilemmas seems to equip us to deal with the real thing.

Psychologists argue that children train in Neverland for the predicaments of adult life. And many scientists believe that dreams may also be an innate training program, allowing our brains to safely practice responses to threatening situations. We are not yet ready to close the case on the evolutionary mystery of fiction. But enough evidence exists to identify a prime suspect. Trouble is the fat red thread that ties together the fantasies of pretend play, fiction stories, and dreams, and trouble is a clue to an evolutionary function they all may share: giving us practice in dealing with the big dilemmas of human life.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human