Thursday, April 1, 2010

What neuroscience can tell us about why we read fiction

Here's an interesting story from the New York Times that asks whether there's an evolutionary reason why we read and enjoy fiction (you can probably guess that it has to do with getting our genes into the next generation).  Among the theories being posited is that our intense interest in fictional characters sharpens our ability to glean the motives and "secret thoughts" of the real people around us which, of course, aids our survival.  Another theory suggests that our interest in fictional characters helps hone our sense of altruism (which also keeps the species alive):

[F]ictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.

How does the interdisciplinary study of why we enjoy fiction help lawyers and those who teach them?  I'm glad you asked.  Perhaps it will provide insight into how we can leverage certain archetypal themes which evolution has made especially appealing to us to better help persuade the decision-maker (or at the very least hold her attention longer):

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine [an English professor at U. Kentucky] said. For example, the proposition 'Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate' is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

Perhaps the human facility with three levels is related to the intrigues of sexual mating, Ms. Zunshine suggested. Do I think he is attracted to her or me? Whatever the root cause, Ms. Zunshine argues, people find the interaction of three minds compelling. 'If I have some ideological agenda,' she said, 'I would try to construct a narrative that involved a triangularization of minds, because that is something we find particularly satisfying.'

Interesting.  You can read the rest here.

I am the scholarship dude.


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