Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why We Love Fiction, Even Though Withdrawal Lies at the End

Sherlock Holmes. Tyrion Lannister. Harvey Specter. Sheldon Cooper.  Each of these is a fictional character who has recently triggered in me a bout of sulkiness simply because I've watched all of the aired episodes of the tv shows they're from.  An embarrassingly large chunk of the past couple of weeks has gone into what I like to call "fiction withdrawal" because of these non-people.  Every time I complete an epic piece of fiction, I look something like this:

This includes tv serials, novels, and sometimes movies if they're good enough to suck me in completely for two hours.  (Note: this is not unlike what happens when I discover that I've run out of coffee.)

So, why is it that we enjoy fiction so much?  I know that a lot of people (including yours truly) like the feel of 'escaping' into a story and imagining themselves in the position of a character because they feel they can relate to the characters, but I wondered if enjoying fiction goes deeper than that.  It turns out that it just might.

One theory is that if the telling of stories was not beneficial to evolution, the enjoyment of fiction would have been siphoned off a long time ago.  Stories are simulators that train our brains to be flexible and creative, traits that are both essential for progress and development.  This is a theory I can readily believe, especially for that of written fiction.  Reading, as I've posted before, requires more brain power than that of watching tv.

Another theory is that when we indulge in fiction, we are not really 'escaping' from life but to life.  Stories promise solutions to the conflicts that lie at the heart of them. The process of moving from conflict to resolution is like an echo of the processes in our own lives.  Experiencing situations that are out of our own realms of possibilities through fictional characters is enjoyable, yes.  But the theory claims that we sharpen our awareness of life because of the journey of emotions good fiction takes us on as well.  And, apparently, this sharpening of awareness gives us the ability to make logical decisions.  I suppose I can understand where the theory comes from in some sense, but I also think that obtaining a distorted view of the world is a risk if people cannot distinguish between fact and fiction.  I  have to read more about this to understand it.

Prof. Lisa Zunshine is a name that kept popping up when I looked up the research undertaken in this direction.  Her website has a number of interesting materials on the links between cognitive science and fiction.  If you're intrigued, definitely check it out.  A couple of other articles that you might like are: Why Do We Enjoy Fiction Anyway? and Next Best Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know.

Understanding why we enjoy fiction in various forms would provide us with insight into how our brains work.  I'd even be interested in a study that addresses why some people are more inclined to certain genres than others.  

But no matter what the reasons are, I know that as of right now, I wish I could curl up into a ball and weep for the loss of the fictional 'friends' I made over the past two weeks, or else travel to the future when new episodes are aired.

Which characters and stories have you recently encountered that set you spiraling down the dark hole of withdrawal?


  1. Sorry !! I didn't understand meaning of "Withdrawal Lies at the End".
    I think taste change with time... I used to like Fiction... but nowadays I like documentaries :)

  2. Ah, I use 'withdrawal' in this sense:

    And, yeah, people's tastes do change. I read a lot more non-fiction these days than I used to, but I still enjoy all sorts of fiction.