Believing fiction

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 3:53 pm by ducky

Merilyn Simonds, a cool (and fun!) Canadian author who is living in my dorm, has been hosting “salons”. Every week, about ten or fifteen of us sit around in front of the fire and discuss something.

Last week, Merilyn put forth that people believe fiction more than they believe non-fiction. She was channeling Janet Malcolm, who postulated that fiction is believed more wholeheartedly because a fictional world is the result of one person’s imagination. Malcolm supposes that because no other perspectives are possible except the one we are reading, we either fall for it or we don’t. When we read a nonfiction story, however, we know that there are undoubtedly many other perspectives, hence we suspend only part of our belief.

I was startled, but think that it is true in a sense: people certainly do have a more visceral reaction to stories than to facts — even if the stories are fiction. You can quote statistics about a disease until you are blue in the face, but that doesn’t have the same impact as a story about someone living with that disease.

Politicians know this. They trot out “real people” to convince the public of that the politician’s position is the right one. Companies know that. They make up compelling stories and feed them as advertisements to consumers. Even user interface designers know this: they make up fictional people and describe how they interact with the product.

Why does this work? Why are stories so compelling? I wasn’t sure that I bought Janet Malcolm’s idea; when I get lost in text — fiction or non-fiction — I don’t think I really think about the existence of other points of view. I’m too busy reading.

What made sense to me is that when we hear a story, we have to imagine it in our minds. I am guessing that the imagination of a story doesn’t fundamentally appear to our minds to be all that different from the memory of a story. I surmise that we are wired to believe our own memories over what other people tell us. (This is good! This is what keeps me from sending all my money to Nigeria!)

Well, yesterday, I happened across a Scientific American. It turns out that when you see somebody do an action, the same neurons fire as when you do that action yourself! Not only that, but the same neurons fire when you hear somebody perform an action with a distinctive sound (like ripping paper) as when you rip the paper yourself.

I speculate that when we hear a story of someone performing an action, the same neurons fire as if we did the action ourselves, thus getting inside our head in a very literal way. It wouldn’t be a surprise that stories seem very real to us. It would feel a lot like we were there.

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