Monday, November 06, 2006

Why We Read Fiction

Lisa Zunshine writes in the Nov/Dec Skeptical Inquirer:
Why We Read Fiction

Two areas of research in cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology offer tentative but nevertheless exciting insights into cravings that are satisfied -- and intensified -- by reading fiction.

In spite of the way it sounds, mind reading has nothing to do with plain old telepathy. Instead, it is a term used by cognitive psychologists, interchangeably with Theory of Mind (ToM) to describe our ability to explain people's behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires. Thus we engage in mind reading when we attribute to a person a certain mental state on the basis of her observable action: e.g., when we see her reaching for a glass of water and assume that she is thirsty; when we compose an essay, a lec-ture, a movie, a song, a novel, or instructions for an electrical appliance and try to imagine how this or that segment of our target audience will respond to it; when we negotiate a multi-layered social situation; and so forth. Incorrect though our attributions frequently are, making them is the default way by which we construct and navigate our social environment.

One reason that Theory of Mind has received the sustained attention of cognitive psychologists over the last twenty years is that they have come across people whose ability to interpret behavior in terms of underlying mental states is drastically impaired-people with autism. A severe neurological deficit, autism is characterized by the profound impairment of social and communicative development, by the "lack of the usual flexibility, imagination, and pretence," and, crucially for the present discussion, by a lack of interest in fiction and story-telling (Baron-Cohen 1995). On the whole, studies in autism suggest that we do not just "learn" how to communicate with people and read their emotions, including the emotions of fictional characters. People with autism, after all, generally have as many opportunities to "learn" these things as you and I. Instead it seems that we also have evolved cognitive architecture that makes this particular kind of learning possible, and if this architecture is damaged, a wealth of experience would never fully make up for the damage.
Lisa Zunshine is an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky and she has just written a book on this subject.

Zunshine goes on to give her own theories as to why she thinks that reading fiction would be good exercise for the brain, but she really doesn't have any brain evidence or any explanation as to why reading fiction would be any better exercise than anything else.

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