Are Fictional Stories Like a Computer Simulation For Our Emotions?

Have you ever spent hours working on a story, only to read it back and find it feels like a formulaic series of events that happen to your characters, who don’t even seem to care that much, bolted together with some dialogue? Have you read a story with almost the same series of events, told a little differently, and find it so deeply moving that it stays with you for weeks afterwards? As writers we are aware that we are writing something that feels flat and fails to push any emotional buttons, but sometimes we struggle to understand why that is.

There is some insights from psychology that can help us with that: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation Theory by Keith Oatley. This was described in his paper ‘Why fiction might be twice as true as fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation.’ This peer reviewed paper was published in the academic journal Review of General Psychology in 1999, and can be accessed for free here. It is also the source I have used to write this article.

Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation

The core idea of this theory was that fictional stories and poetry, particularly the kind of stories that get badged under the term ‘literature’, could provide readers with a kind of virtual simulation through which to explore their emotions. This happens when a reader becomes wrapped up in the emotions of the characters as they make the journey that their particular story takes them on.

Fiction as a simulation

In his explanation of the first core element of his theory, that people may experience a story world like a computer simulation, he suggests that fictional stories do not try to create a perfect imitation of life. Instead, writers create a convincing simulation by describing scenes and events in a way that include the necessary contextual information about the goals and motivations of a character, and details about the setting and how those events occur.

This extra information allows the reader to construct a mental picture of a characters interaction with their story environment and with other characters within it. In doing so they may understand how actions taken may lead to consequences, and the emotional fall out that follows.

In his work he described two forms of information that the brain uses to create a simulation of a fictional world:

  • The event structure — the series of events that happens in a story.
  • The discourse structure — which I interpret as the creative and artistic decisions that a writer or artist makes which tell the reader how those events will unfold.

I like to think of this as a good way of understanding how, while they say there are no new ideas under the sun, we still encounter stories that feel new because of the way the particular writer or artist decides to tell them.

Fictional simulations as an emotional laboratory

In the second core aspect of his theory, he suggests that the simulations fictional stories provide us are so involving that they may allow readers to experience some form of personal truth, that may lead to personal insight.

This is because readers are likely to flesh out a story world with material from their own memories and experiences, and so build a personalised version of whatever story is put in front of them.

His main argument, which he describes in far more detail with than I have space for here, is that fictional worlds provide a kind of emotional laboratory in which people can experience emotional responses to a range of simulated events. Through that process they may experience both expected and unexpected emotional responses to things, and may come to understand themselves, and other people, better.

He suggests that there are three different ways in which stories evoke emotions in readers:

  1. Identification — Where the reader identifies with the protagonist of the story, takes on their goals and effectively feels what the character would feel as if the emotions were the readers own.
  2. Sympathy — Where the reader doesn’t necessarily identify with the character, but is none the less moved by their journey as it is described in the story.
  3. Memory — Provoking the reader to recall their own emotional memories in response to events occurring in the story.

Why does this matter to writers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked why some stories were convincing on an emotional level, while others were not. What this theory does is direct us to pay attention to how things happen to our protagonists, and how they respond to those things while we are crafting our stories. Do events happening to the character feel consistent with the story world? Does the character have reactions to those events that feel authentic to them?

I know that personally, if I feel that a character has done something or said something simply to service the plot (or event structure), that seems a bit silly or out of character, I tend to put books down or disengage from a film or TV series. For me it doesn’t matter what genre this is happening in, it can be some deep fantasy or complicated science fiction, but if the characterisation feels insincere I’ll often switch off (if this rings a bell for you, you may also be interested in the idea of false notes, mentioned in this article).

This idea has been influential in the way I try to write now. I try to ensure that my characters, made up as they are, have some kind of emotional truth within my stories. Sometimes I miss this a bit on my first pass and need to give a story a bit of time to ‘rest’ so that I can come back to a story and really decide if I’ve made the right aesthetic decision, but I think they are better for it.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, on a bad day as a writer, it’s easy to think ‘I’m just making stuff up, it’s not like I’m doing anything useful’. What this theory suggests to us is that good writing is important, perhaps essential, to how readers may view and understand other people, and that may influence their relationships with other people in the real world.

Exciting stuff, huh?

A note on the source text:

The way this theory is described in the original paper is more complicated, and has many more implications than I have described here. On top of that, this paper was published more than twenty years ago, since then a lot more work has been done on this idea. I do plan going to circle back to these themes at a later date, but if you are interested in psychology, storytelling, reading and writing I suggest you may want to take a bit of time to read the whole thing here.

This article was first published on Medium, where I regularly post content from this blog.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Ideas from psychology that are helpful to writers: Transformation-Imagery Theory Part 2

In my last blog post from this series I introduced the Transformation-Imagery Theory of narrative persuasion which was developed by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock in the early 2000’s. If you haven’t already read that I suggest you do that here, as what comes below may not make a huge amount of sense without that context.

In this follow on blog I’m going to suggest a few ways in which it can be helpful to writers, especially those who want to create work that has a message that is persuasive, and also to suggest, from the perspective of being a writer, a few ways in which the theory feels like it falls short.

I’m drawing here on the ideas they had when they first described the theory over twenty years ago, so it’s likely that there has been work to refine this since. I will circle back to that at a later date.

How is this helpful to writers?

I think there is some merit in looking at this theory from the perspective of thinking about how to create a story that is highly transporting (of achieving that sense of ‘losing oneself’ in the story for readers).

Green and Brock describe a process that is a meeting between the reader and the story itself, so that while there are important elements in the text that may (or may not!) make it a transporting read, the reader will also bring with them skills, abilities, and previous experiences that will also have an impact on the extent to which they become ‘transported’ into a particular story.

For example, some people may naturally be more skilled at imagining ‘story worlds’ than others, and so are more likely to be transported into any story they read. That said, while there is little we can to to impact on what the reader brings to the reading experience in terms of natural abilities, as writers there are things that we can think about to help them along.

Use of Imagery

While Green and Brock weren’t aiming at giving advice to writers in their early papers (which are the ones I am most familiar with), there are a number of clues for us in the way they framed their theory. In particular they suggested that imagery was key to the experience of transportation, so much so that they included it in the title of their theory.

My interpretation of their writing on this is that the use of language that evokes vivid imagery, interwoven through a clear plot, is key to the experience of transportation, which probably won’t be news to many writers, or indeed readers out there. Many writers will have spent time reading and re-reading passages from particularly well written books, just to try to work out how the author evoked that particular time and space.

But I would be inclined to expand on the idea of imagery to include other sensory information such as taste, smell, temperature and sound. These things don’t seem to feature in the theory, but can be essential in creating the sense of a location in a story. A lot of other better writers than me have written on this topic, but personally I feel that stories that rely on images alone create a story world that feels a little flat, and is not always persuasive.

Emotional involvement

The theory also suggests that stories that evoke strong emotional reactions may be more transporting, although interestingly they don’t really talk about understanding the emotional journey of the characters. Instead they seem to link the emotional responses of readers with the events in the story, i.e. what happens to the characters, and the readers ability to ‘see them’ through imagery.

But if we fill in the gaps here, we can think about stories where characters go on an emotional journey on comparison with stories where this doesn’t happen, and draw our own conclusions on which are more emotionally engaging. For me this feels like a missing link, but luckily for us there is another theory from psychology that can help us here, and I will write about that in my next post.

Adhering to narrative formats

Perhaps of interest to genre writers (like myself) in particular, they pointed out that people often like particular forms of stories (the example they draw on here is the suspense story) and will protect their experiences of it. In today’s money that means avoiding spoilers.

They didn’t go into great detail on this, but it reminded me of conversations I’ve heard else where about breaking, or not breaking your contract with the reader. If you kill a banker on page two, and bring in a detective as a main character on page three, the reader will expect a series of clues, setbacks and revelations until, at the end of the book, they ‘guy who done it’ is caught.

So my interpretation of what they were saying here is, don’t disappoint the reader, or it will damage their experience of the story and reduce likely transportation into it.

Avoiding false notes

One of they things that Green and Brock did explicitly mention as being potentially damaging to the experience of transportation was the existence of ’false notes’ within a story. By this they meant aspects of a story that ‘did not ring true’, they contradicted other aspects of the story or generally didn’t make sense.

While they didn’t mention this specifically, for me false note could refer to those moments where a character does something that simply seems wrong, and that doesn’t fit with the picture you have built up of the character. Something that does not seem to hold emotional truth. I have frequently put down books and stopped watching shows and movies where I like a character and then they suddenly do something that I think is really stupid.

So I think this bit of their work can be particularly helpful at revision time. Is everything consistent? Does everything make sense? Does my fictional story carry emotional truth?

I hope you have found this interesting, in my next post I’m going to move on to some of the work by Keith Oatley about literature providing a kind of emotional simulation. I hope you will follow along if you are interested in these kind of ideas.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Ideas from psychology that are helpful to writers: Transportation-Imagery Theory Part 1.

I have recently been revisiting some of the research I read while I was conducting my PhD over 15 years ago. At the time I was interested in understanding why stories can be more persuasive than facts or reasoned arguments, (which turns out to be quite an evergreen topic in itself – more on that in future posts).

At the moment I have been taking anther look at these things because I am interested, as a writer, in what can be learning from the psychological research on how readers respond to stories, and I thought other writers may be interested too.

I’m going to start with one of the main theories I worked with during my PhD – Transportation-Imagery Theory by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock (published 2000 – the abstract is linked here for anyone with an interest but unfortunately the whole paper is not publicly available).

Why Transportation-Imagery Theory?

The term ‘transportation was first coined by Richard Gerrig in his book Experiencing Narrative Worlds (published in 1993 – available here (Affiliate link), but FYI it is pricey so I suggest you look for it in a local library if you are interested), and later expanded upon by Green and Brock in their peer reviewed paper ‘The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives’ (published 2000 – the abstract is linked here for anyone with an interest but unfortunately the whole paper is not publicly available).

They were interested in developing a theory about why embedding ideas into narratives can be so persuasive, at times more persuasive than factual information or reasoned arguments. For this reason I think that this theory may have points of interest in it, both for writers who want to convey particular messages in their work, but also perhaps for writers who want to avoid perpetuating harmful messages too.

In our current social and political climate, this kind of thinking feels more, rather than less relevant than it did when I originally started working on my PhD 15 years ago. Whether we intend it or not, most stories contain some kind of message (Gail Carrigers Book, The Heroine’s Journey makes this point very well (Affiliate link)), so it can be helpful for most writers to understand the potential impact their work may have.

What does ‘transportation’ into a story mean?

The idea here should make intuitive sense to anyone who has ever been an avid reader, and has ‘lost themselves’ in a book. It’s that feeling of being transported into a different world, while losing touch with what is happening in your own, of time passing without you noticing as you follow the twists and turns of events happening for the book’s characters. Its that feeling of being able to see and feel and smell the environment that the characters are in, and of reacting to the emotions that the characters feel.

So you may be thinking at this point, we know that this is a thing, do we really need a psychologist to tell us that? The work of researchers in psychology (and basically any other field of study) is to try to describe a phenomenon in a way that allows them to test different theories about how it works. This is the way in which scientists learn how things do, and do not work. What Green and Brock were trying to do was to describe the experience of transportation in a way that would allow them to test the impact of it on readers, and learn more about how it worked from the inside.

In their chapter in the book Narrative Impact (which I am using as my main source for this article – it was published in 2002 and now is available on amazon (affiliate link) here but FYI it is pricey so again, as at your local libarary!) they describe transportation as a “convergent process, where all of the person’s mental systems and capacities become focused on the events occurring in the narrative” (Page 324). This may account for that sense of dislocation one feels when being disturbed when reading a really good story, and of needing to take a moment to ‘come back into the room’.

Their main argument is that the more a person becomes ‘transported’ into a story, the more likely it is that they will find any messages embedded within that narrative to be persuasive, which may even result in changes in attitudes and beliefs.

Why are those messages more persuasive when found in a story?

There are a number of reasons why this process of transportation results in people being more likely to believe messages that are embedded within a story, and many of these reasons draw on the work of other scientists and psychologists. Over the next few months (or possibly years) I’m going to be writing about some of that work so if you are interested in learning more be sure to follow my blog here, or over at Medium if that’s where you prefer to read things.

In brief, some of the reasons why a transported reader may be more persuadable are:

  • Narratives mimic episodic memory – the kind of memory we use to remember important moments and events in our lives – so can be easier to understand and remember for many people
  • Processing narrative and stories may be a process that draws on many resources of the brain, as it involves understanding or constructing images, characters, settings and emotions, and more, all weaved together at once – there may not be many resources left to identify and think about messages we receive in this way, let alone form counter arguments to them
  • Often people engage with stories for the sake of enjoyment or distraction, they don’t go into the experience with the aim of critiquing messages they find there
  • The experience of transportation results in a kind of psychological distancing from everyday life, meaning that some facts, ideas and other forms of ‘real world’ knowledge that may contradict those messages may be less accessible to transported readers

It’s worth mentioning here that all people are different, and not all brains work in the same way, so the above effects may be more or less prevalent for different people.

I hope you have found this interesting, in Part Two (read here) of this mini-series I will explain some of the insights from this theory that may be helpful (or not!) to the process of writing.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Creativity, Dyslexia and Me: Part Two

In Part One of this little series I wrote a bit about my own experiences with dyslexia, and some of these things that I found interesting in the introductory sections of the paper ‘Not all those who wander are lost: Examining the character strengths of dyslexia’ by Chathurika Kannanga, Jerome Carson, Sowmya Puttaraju and Rosie Allen. I found that post quite helpful to write personally, and I think a few other people have found it interesting too.

However, I didn’t manage to get past the introduction of the paper to get into what the authors actually did, which is a bit of a shame, so I did want to write a bit about that here.

Dyslexia and character strengths

So the authors of the paper start with the question – what might the character strengths of people with dyslexia be when compared to a general population? I really like that this is a paper that takes a strengths based approach to this issue, but the approach they took left me with some doubts about the actual findings that I’ll come to a bit later.

To assess character strengths in people with dyslexia what they did was ask lots of people to take an online survey using the Values In Action Character Strengths Inventory (VIA).

This tool is a long survey (240 items) which asks people to answer questions about the extent to which a range of characteristics are ‘very much like me’ which scores a 5, across a range of responses down to ‘very much unlike me’ which scores a 1. The tool assesses 24 character strengths using ten questions to measure each one.

They managed to get 89 people with confirmed dyslexia to complete the survey, which for these kind of studies is not a particularly big number, but it’s not too small either. They then used the collective scores from these 89 people to rank character strengths in order from the strength that the group scored most highly in, down to the one that the scored least in.

So you end up with something that looks a bit like Top of the Pops, but instead of pop music it’s a chart of character strengths. They then took that list and compared it to the lists produced in other studies that had asked the same set of questions to groups of people from the general population in the US, and in the UK (note here that this is population data, not a sample of people who have been confirmed as not having dyslexia).

What they found was that the top six character strengths among people with dyslexia were (in this order):

•   curiosity
•   fairness
•   kindness
•   judgement
•   honesty
•   leadership

The extent to which people with dyslexia differ on these strengths from people who don’t have dyslexia was a bit confused to me. For example ‘curiosity’ came in at the top for the group of people with dyslexia, and while I personally strongly relate to this as a curious person, it’s important to note that it only came in third for the US and UK general population groups, which doesn’t feel like feel like a big difference when you take into account the fact that the list included twenty four character traits.

The second characteristic on the list for people with dyslexia was kindness, which was also second on the list for the group from the UK general population, and first on the list from the US general population. So there was really no meaningful difference at all there.

Creativity, which was the interest that led me to this paper in the first place, came in at number eight for the people with dyslexia. This made a full third of the way down the list, and was the same ranking for the UK general population, with rank from the US general population trailing behind only a little bit, at number eleven.

The biggest difference the authors point to is leadership, which comes in at number six for people with dyslexia, while it comes in at ten for the UK general population, and fourteen for the US general population. In the top group of traits this was the only one with a really noticeable difference across different groups, and perhaps this relates to the ‘big picture thinking’ that they cite people with dyslexia as being good at in the introduction.

For me the findings of this paper offer at best a muddled picture, meaning that maybe the key finding is that we just aren’t that different from everyone else. From a personal perspective, went into reading this paper with an idea that learning more about dyslexia would mean learning a bit more about myself, and there are problems with the methodology which mean that I don’t really feel much wiser after reading it.

Problems with the method

I think where the paper really falls down for me is the method they used, which the authors of the paper also recognise as a key problem. The VIA is tool is a 240 item questionnaire, and was not designed with dyslexia in mind in particular. 240 items is a lot of items, and I think using this tool in a study about character strengths really undermines the credibility of this paper.

People who struggle with reading may well have self-selected themselves out of this study. I have dyslexia, and I cope with it well enough to have a career in research and a side line in writing things, but I think I would probably have quit after about 20 items. Maybe after 50 if I was having a good day. I may have persisted to the end if I knew the researchers and wanted to help out, but that wouldn’t have made me the typical ‘person with dyslexia’ either.

I think the consequence of this may mean that only a particular type of person with dyslexia would have persisted until the end, which means that a lot of ‘average people with dyslexia’ may be missing from this data set. In a study about character strengths this could really skew the sample in favour of a particular set of those strengths, just by making to survey hard for people to fill in.

The authors themselves mention this as a significant limitation, and I appreciate them doing so. For me this casts doubt on the findings because it’ unlikely to be a sample of the average person with dyslexia, just the persistent ones.

I think in the next iteration of this research the team should recruit a group of people with dyslexia to redesign the survey with them so that it would be more appealing to the ‘average person with dyslexia’ if such a thing exists.

I hope that this has been interesting for dyslexics and non dyslexics alike. If you are a dyslexic writer like me, let me know in the comments – do any of these things match your experiences too?

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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