The Holodeck Is Real

How does fiction get us to treat fake things as real?

Posted Feb 20, 2013

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.

Star Trek characters simulating in the holodeck

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.

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