Friday, July 13, 2012


By the time we die, we will spend more time in imaginary worlds (novels, TV shows, dreams,  fantasies, make-believe) than anywhere else. The human addiction to story is one of the great unsolved mysteries of evolutionary biology. But recent research points the way to a solution.... 

Why do most of us spend (waste?) hours per day absorbed in the fake dilemmas of fake people when we could be doing practical things like wooing mates or working for a promotion? The answer may seem obvious: fiction gives us joy. But it isn’t obvious that fiction should give us joy, at least not in the way it’s biologically obvious that eating or sex should give us joy.  It is the joy of story that needs explaining.

The mystery of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian.  How has the time-gobbling luxury of fiction not been eliminated? In short, no one knows for sure.  But researchers are converging on a possible solution: the answer may lie in the intensely troubled nature of fiction.

The University of Toronto psychologist Keith Oatley argues that stories are the flight simulators of human life. Fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that parallel what we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.  In support of the “simulator” model, Oatley’s studies show that the more fiction we consume, the higher we score on tests of empathy and social ability. In other words, working through fictional social dilemmas seems to equip us to deal with the real thing. 

Read the entire article, from the World Science Festival Newsletter, here.

And for a contrary view, my article on why I wish my kid would read less and actually do more i.e. real experience versus fictional, at

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