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 science to boost your art: The restorative impact of nature

Before I started writing this blog post I took a walk in a nature park that is close to my home. I had spent the morning trying to upload my film to a website in order to submit it to some festivals (more news on that to come), and was in need of a creative reset before I started working on a different project. I frequently find that a walk in a wild place will help me think through what I want to say or do next on any number of my creative works in progress, and it has significant positive impact on my mental and physical health too. I’m not the only one who finds this, and the positive impact of being in green or blue spaces on humans has been established for some time.

This is why I wanted to discuss some of the ideas of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in this next ‘ideas from science to boost your art’ post. I came across their book, The experience of nature: a Psychological perspective while working up a proposal for a project at work. It’s an old book, published in 1989 and doesn’t appear to be in print any more, but I was able to access it for free here.

The book outlines a theoretical perspective on how natural environments are beneficial to us, and then brings together a lot of evidence to support different parts of the theory from psychological studies that the authors and their students conducted around that time. I really liked how they described an inclusive understanding of natural environments on page 2 as “places near and far, common and unusual, managed and unkempt, big, small and in-between, where plants grow by design, or even despite it.”

I’m not actually going to write about the evidence here. This is partly because the evidence is likely to have been built upon in the thirty years since it’s publication, and should I try to update that here this would turn into a very long blog post. It’s also partly because I think the basic ideas are something that may be helpful and thought provoking to creatives and non creatives alike. Given the book is 368 pages it’s unlikely that I’ll fit everything into a thousand words or so of a blog post, and I have also simplified things because of this. If you like what you see, try giving it a read.

Humans and information

They begin by describing how human beings are highly dependent on information to function, which they hoover up from their environments through all the senses available to them. The brain is in a constant state of sorting through which information is important and requires some sort of action, and which is not. In order to do this hoovering and sorting the brain can engage in two different types of attentional processes:

  1. ‘Involuntary attention’ – the kind of focus you may have when engaging with something you already find interesting. This kind of attention is relatively low effort, and enjoyable
  2. ‘Directed attention’ – the kind of attention you have to work at. If we think about this as writers, it’s the kind of attention you may need to sustain your concentration through a difficult scene or a series of picky revisions or edits. Sustaining this kind of attention for extended periods of time can result in mental fatigue, even if this has been in the pursuit of a project that is enjoyable.

They then make the argument, which feels intuitively right to me, that in modern society we have constructed urban environments and social structures that constantly provide us with lots of interesting and distracting information, and thus there is lots of ‘sorting’ to do between the information that is just interesting, and the information that requires action. As a result we frequently engage in directed attention, which can result in mental fatigue.

Mental fatigue

For most writers and creatives, especially ones like myself who are trying to fit creative stuff in around other bits of life, I think that mental fatigue may be a familiar feeling. It is the state where someone may feel ‘worn out’ without necessarily having engaged in any physical activity. They even note that people who experience this may complain that they have not engaged in enough activity.

The consequences of mental fatigue may be familiar too. People who are mentally fatigued are more likely to commit human errors and to be aggressive, less tolerant, and less sensitive to socially important cues. So here is the explanation for that gaping plot hole that you didn’t notice first time round in that bit of the book you wrote while really tired and highly caffeinated.

Restorative environments

The bulk of the book is dedicated to building a case around why natural environments may be ‘restorative environments’, by which they mean environments that facilitate rest and recovery from mental fatigue. They cite four different characteristics that environments they consider to be ‘restorative’ have:

  1. The sense of ‘being away’ both from one’s every day concerns and responsibilities, and from noise and cluttered urban spaces
  2. The sense of being in ‘a whole other world’ in which things may look and feel quite different
  3. They are inherently fascinating, and easily engage those processes of ‘involuntary attention’ we met earlier
  4. They are compatible with the things that people like to do

The descriptions of these four types of characteristics are quite long and detailed. I’m not going to paraphrase them here as this blog will never end, and I feel like these characteristics will intuitively make sense to a lot of people. If you do want to read about the detail, the relevant sections start from page 184.

I think many of us can see how being in a natural space may fit the bill for all of the above. Being out in a green or blue space means we are away from our desks, our work places, perhaps even our caring responsibilities, and things feel quite different there. Allowing ourselves the time to pay attention to the plants and insect and other animals can feel like being in a whole other world, and is, for many people, inherently fascinating. Being in calm green places allows many of us to do things that we enjoy, like hiking, cycling or sitting near bodies of water.

Recovery from mental fatigue

The final aspect of this theory that I think is really helpful for creatives is their discussion of how being in a natural environment can help us recover from mental fatigue. They suggest this can happen at four levels:

  1. Clearing the head and allowing your mind to pack away the ‘cognitive leftovers’ from a recent task or project
  2. Recovering our abilities to engage in the processes of directed attention, i.e. our ability to concentrate
  3. The ‘soft fascination’ that is induced by exploring the plants and creatures of a place allows for a kind of cognitive quiet which may give space to think about things that are ignored, or not felt to be important on a day to day level
  4. The space for deeper reflections on one’s life , priorities, actions and goals

For me I think the most important take away from these ideas is that as a creative, the key to being productive and having good ideas is not to work on this or that project in every spare moment as western culture may sometimes suggest. Rather, those moments when we step away from our desks and out, into the garden, or away to the park are really important for our brains to be able to function when we do next sit down to work on something. Personally I found this insight really helpful as I often feel a bit guilty when I take an hour out of my ‘art day’ to walk in the park, and perhapse I don’t need to feel like that at all.

I hope you have found this blog interesting or thought provoking. If you have thoughts or comments, I would love to hear from you.

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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Creative Prompts: A Mystery Box

I’ve been listening to The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr on Audible recently (affiliate links – if you use these links to make a purchase I’ll get a tiny commission). I’m not very far in and wouldn’t want to say at this point whether I reccomend it or not, but I’m finding it interesting. My attention was caught in particular by a section about curiosity and storytelling, and I am planning a longer post on that for later this month. Towards the end of this section he wrote about how the film maker JJ Abrams has described his “controling theory of storytelling’ as the opening a series of mystery boxes. This thought in particular was in my mind when I stumbled across this week’s creative prompt.

I saw this little package sitting on a wall in the sunlight a few mornings ago. Inside the bag you could see a collection of cans of Fosters Larger. I didn’t touch the bag, so I don’t know if they were full or empty, but the way the bag is tied neatly, with the ‘thank you’ massage emblazoned on the side gave me the impression that someone had left a thank you gift for someone else. The little package was left on a side street next to a play ground, not on someone’s doorstep or front fence, so it peaked my curiosity a little.

Who would leave such a thing? Who was it for?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, 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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Finding (or not finding) my flow: art in the time of parenting

Hello Magpies!

I am sorry that I missed last week’s post. My brain feels like a sack of porridge at the moment.

I have been thinking a bit about creativity and the stop start nature of artistic work when you are also a parent of a young child. While it took me a while to adjust to having a young son, I feel as though I have got to a place where I am fitting in art, writing or film making every day at the moment. Baby Magpie’s naps have got slightly more predictable, and I’ve also found some time some evenings to do stuff.

So the logistics are beginning to work themselves out, and I am pleased with myself for that. But for me there is a second element to creative work that is really important, and that I’m having a bit less success with. I can have a plan, and follow the plan. I can do 200 words a day for example, but are they good words?

I struggle to find my flow when I am squeezing in work into twenty minute chunks here and there. Flow is a psychological concept, described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, that describes that really enjoyable mental state where everything is working together, your focus is aligned with what you are doing, and time passes by unmarked. If you are interested in reading more, I think this book is good.

I find that it is in this state that my best ideas for my art come to me, and I find it hard to completely enter that state when I also have one eye, or one ear on the baby. Has anyone else experienced this? if you have, and have tips on how to manage this pleased let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for reading. I also make art. 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.