Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Note on the Adaptive Function of Literature

I am reading The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose, which talks about some of the new ways stories are told with the internet and games. They talk about how much of the theory behind how the world wide web works -- using links - comes from Vannevar Bush's idea of the brain being associative and, thus, it would be better to organize information in such a way, using what became known as hyperlinks. It is suggested by Rose that stories can and should make use of the inherent nonlinearity behind this idea.

However, from an evolutionary perspective, there is another interesting point made:

Steven Pinker once described fiction as "a kind of thought experiment" in which characters "play out plausible interactions in a . . . virtual world, and an audience can take mental notes of the results." While perhaps not the most poetic assessment of literature ever penned, this view does seem to be borne out by recent experiments in neuroscience.

In a paper published in 2009, for example, four researchers at Washington University in St. Louis conducted functional MRI scans of 28 people as they were reading a series of stories. The narratives were all taken from One Boy's Day, a 1951 book about the life of a seven-year-old schoolkid named Raymond. The experiment demonstrated a close correlation between the actions described in a story and the parts of the brain that process those actions when a person actually performs them.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging works by showing blood flow within the brain. It can't show what a person is thinking, but it can show which parts of the brain are being activated. When Raymond picked up his workbook, blood flowed to the parts o the readers' brains that are associated with grasping motions. When he walked over to his teacher's desk, the frontal cortex and hippocampus lit up -- the areas of the brain that deal with location in space. When Raymond shook his head no, the part of the brain that deals with goal-directed activity was activated. This suggests, the authors wrote, "that readers understand a story by stimulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change. (141-142)
He then goes on to quote Will Wright, creator of Sim City and The Sims (the latter, after reading Maslow):

"You've only got a limited bubble of experience in your entire life, [...] and you're going to perform better if you can build from a larger set of experiences than you could have personally. As a caveman, you know, your fellow cavemen left the cave and a tiger almost ate him. So he comes back and tells you the story -- This tiger almost ate me! And the next time you leave the cave, you'll look around and make sure there's not a tiger there."
It is perhaps no surprise that this comes from the creator of The Sims. It is a shame that it is game creators rather than fiction writers (and theorists) who best understand the nature of fiction. It certainly points to what many of us have argued is the primary adaptive function of storytelling.

"a kind of thought experiment": Steven Pinker, "Toward a Consilient Description of Literature," Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007), 161-77

"that readers understand a story": Nicole K. Speer, Jeremy R. Reynolds, Khena M. Swallow, and Jeffrey M. Zacks, "Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences," Psychological Science 20, no. 8 (August 2009), 989-99


  1. When I met my husband more than twenty-five years ago, I was a bookish, sheltered English major insisting that, contrary to his opinion that all learning must be first-handedly experiential, it was possible to learn from the safety of your favourite reading chair by substituting someone else's adventures. He laughed. Looks like I might be laughing last.
    Great blog, btw.

  2. You should have your husband read this. :-) Literature is the stage on which we get to experience others' experiences in a safe play space. There's actually a lot of work on this, from anthropologist Victor Turner to poet Frederick Turner, among many others.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.