Darwin’s Storytellers

Question: Why do humans enjoy fiction?

Paul Bloom: Fiction is such a puzzle. You know, you'd expect as good Darwinian creatures, we would evolve to be fascinated with how the world really is, and we would use language to convey real-world information, we'd be obsessed with knowing the way things are, and we would entirely reject stories that aren't true. They're useless. But that's not the way we work. We love stories. Most average humans spend, I think, most of their day-to-day life reading, watching TV, doing, going to the movies, or day dreaming. We spend all or most of our lives, and imagination is our favorite leisure activity. That's a real puzzle.

So the question is, why do we get pleasure from doing this? And I think there's two main reasons. One reason is that our system that scans reality and gets pleasure from reality is not perfect and it can be deceived. And what fiction often is, is a form of purposeful deception. If I really would enjoy winning the World Series of Poker, then what I can do to give myself pleasure is to imagine winning the World Series of Poker and that will press the same pleasure buttons that really winning it would. Not to the same extent, it's always more pallid to imagine something than to experience it, but to some extent. If somebody enjoys sexual intercourse, they would probably prefer to have sexual intercourse, but failing that, they could appeal to pornography, that would stimulate their mind in some way as if it was the sort of thing they're aspiring to.

And one reason why fiction is pleasurable is, it's reality-like. Often we seek out in fiction pleasurable experiences that we want to have in the real world and it's close enough to be enjoyable.

But that only explains some of fiction. Some of the stores we like, and this is a real puzzle, are unpleasant. People are drawn to tragedies and are drawn to horror movies. Now, it's not hard to explain why I might like to see a movie where a professor wins a million dollars and everything, "Oh, that's great, I can imagine myself in that situation." Why would I want to see a movie where a professor is captured by a sadistic axe murderer and chopped to bits? Why would I seek out something so unpleasant? I think some of what goes on in fiction is that we also use it as a way to imagine alternative worlds and we imagine certain sort of alternative worlds, we imagine worst case scenarios, and we do this because there's an adaptive value to exploring the imagination possibilities that might occur as a way to prepare for them, to plan them. Any athlete thinks ahead to, well, what's going to happen if this happens? What's going to happen if that happens? And these alternatives aren't always pleasant ones. Anybody preparing for a **** or preparing for a combat always imagines situations that are bad situations and do this because it helps prepare for them when they really occur. And I think that's what fiction is. I think what a lot of fiction is, is the imagining of the worst so as to prepare ourselves.

Now, developmentally, I'm interested in where, in the origin of this appreciation of fiction. We know very young children like stories. We know, and this is some work I've done with Dina Weisburg, who's now **** directors, Dina and I looked at children's understanding of stories, again, they're very sophisticated. So they know that their best friend is real and Batman is make-believe. They also know that Batman thinks that Sponge Bob Square Pants is make-believe, those are in different story worlds, but Batman thinks Robin is real, because they're in the same story world. Incredibly sophisticated knowledge. And a lot of my work has explored what children know about fiction.

What I'm also interested, more and more recently, is why children enjoy fiction? And I think in part, it is they enjoy fiction that simulates real-world pleasures. But I think they also enjoy fiction that exposes them to worst-case scenarios. I think that even young children are drawn to some extent to tragedy and horror. And we're doing some experiments in my lab to see whether children will actually choose an unpleasant fiction over a pleasant fiction under the right circumstances. And our prediction is that they will.

Question: Do stories help reconcile what you’ve called our multiple inner selves?

Paul Bloom: So a different function of fiction that people have been interested in, is as a way to give voice to different parts of ourselves. To simulate, not just situations, but different personalities and different characters. And this shows up in its sharpest form in situations, the more modern situations, where people can create alternative selves. As when we become avatars on, in a computer game. Or when we do various forms of role playing online. And what people will often do in these situations, like second life, for instance, is they'll create a persona and explore it. If I'm a man, I might explore what it would like to be a woman. If I'm aggressive, if I'm passive, I might explore what it's like to be aggressive. And this serves, I think, a useful function in that it's a way, in some way, to put it, perhaps metaphorically, giving voice to the multiple parts of ourselves. And that can help us later figure out how to deal with this, how to cope with these things.

So you see this all the time in psychodynamic and psychoanalytic exercises, where you speak in different voices. But I think any kid who goes onto Second Life or World of Warcraft or even just, you know, any blogger, gets a chance to explore different facets of him or herself.

What explains the universal human love of fiction, even horror fiction? Paul Bloom believes it’s an evolved preference that helped our ancestors survive a variety of real-world scenarios.

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