Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fiction as simulation

In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science, the psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley lays out his stall, arguing that fiction, and especially literary fiction, is a beneficial force in our lives....

Oatley bases his claim on various experimental evidence of his own and others, most of which has been conducted in the last 20 years. Among the reported effects of reading fiction (and in some cases other fiction with involving narratives, such as films and even videogames) are more empathetic responses – as self-reported by the participant, or occasionally demonstrated by increased helping behaviour afterwards – reductions in sexual and racist stereotyping, and improvements in figuring out the mental states of others.

Another interesting set of findings come from fMRI measurements of brain activation: we know that people have a tendency to engage in a kind suppressed imitation of the actions of others they are around. The same thing happens when reading about people’s actions: if a character in a story is said to pull a light cord, for example, the reader’s brain activates in areas associated with the initiation of grasping behaviour.

Many of these techniques involve testing people just after they have read something.

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