By the time we die, we will spend more time in imaginary worlds (novels, TV shows, dreams, fantasies, make-believe) than anywhere else. The human addiction to story is one of the great unsolved mysteries of evolutionary biology. But recent research points the way to a solution.
Imagine you find a magical device that allows you to enter an alternate universe as an invisible observer. Before entering, you know you will witness brutal, scarring things: the murders of women and children, bodies tortured, defiled, and dismembered. Seemingly decent men will reveal themselves as evil Nazis and sick maniacs. Watching, you will grow angry, tense, and scared—your heart will beat harder, your breath and sweat will come faster. When it’s all over, the bad men may torture you in nightmares. In waking life, you may find yourself more suspicious of strangers, and even your neighbors.
Do you want to use your magical device? If you answer, “Not a chance!,” then you’d be wrong. The magic device is a novel, and the fictional scenario I’m describing is from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Larsson’s novel offers a particularly gruesome onslaught of nauseating sexual violence. But it’s hardly alone. It’s a paradox: From the ultra-violence of The Clockwork Orange, to the crazed brutality of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, to Oedipus stabbing out his eyes out in disgust, to the horrors portrayed on the best-seller lists and on TV shows like Dexter and CSI—the most popular stories often feature the most unpleasant subject matter. These are all heavy examples, but even lighter fare—romantic comedies, sitcoms—are organized around problems: Will Dumb and Dumber overcome their obstacles to win mates who are way out of their league? Will the mousy romance-novel librarian tame the studly forest ranger? In short, regardless of genre, if there is no knotty problem there is no story.
Why do most of us spend (waste?) hours per day absorbed in the fake dilemmas of fake people when we could be doing practical things like wooing mates or working for a promotion? The answer may seem obvious: fiction gives us joy. But it isn’t obvious that fiction should give us joy, at least not in the way it’s biologically obvious that eating or sex should give us joy. It is the joy of story that needs explaining.
The mystery of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian. How has the time-gobbling luxury of fiction not been eliminated? In short, no one knows for sure. But researchers are converging on a possible solution: the answer may lie in the intensely troubled nature of fiction.
The University of Toronto psychologist Keith Oatley argues that stories are the flight simulators of human life. Fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that parallel what we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead. In support of the “simulator” model, Oatley’s studies show that the more fiction we consume, the higher we score on tests of empathy and social ability. In other words, working through fictional social dilemmas seems to equip us to deal with the real thing.
Additional evidence comes from unexpected sources: children’s make-believe and dreams. Around the world small children play at story by instinct, and their imaginative scenarios are full of mayhem. And the same goes for the stories we spin in dreams. Dreams are conventionally defined as “intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure.” Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist—usually the dreamer—who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can’t even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. Like fiction and pretend play, dreams are dominated by threats and problems
Psychologists argue that children train in Neverland for the predicaments of adult life. And many scientists believe that dreams may also be an innate training program, allowing our brains to safely practice responses to threatening situations. We are not yet ready to close the case on the evolutionary mystery of fiction. But enough evidence exists to identify a prime suspect. Trouble is the fat red thread that ties together the fantasies of pretend play, fiction stories, and dreams, and trouble is a clue to an evolutionary function they all may share: giving us practice in dealing with the big dilemmas of human life.