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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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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