Friday, April 02, 2010

I Know That You Know I Know

Yay! Scientists are looking at what happens inside people's brains when they read fiction. I will need to start hunting down journal articles immediately! I find this sort of stuff incredibly interesting.

Nathan Bransford twittered this link, but it is a New York Times article, which means if you're not speedy enough about reading it, you'll need to log in, and I think that costs money.

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know

This article deals with the fascination humans feel about knowing what other people know, which might fuel our fascination with fiction. I found the following two excerpts particularly interesting.

Excerpt 0001:
Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

Perhaps the human facility with three levels is related to the intrigues of sexual mating, Ms. Zunshine suggested. Do I think he is attracted to her or me? Whatever the root cause, Ms. Zunshine argues, people find the interaction of three minds compelling. “If I have some ideological agenda,” she said, “I would try to construct a narrative that involved a triangularization of minds, because that is something we find particularly satisfying.”
And Excerpt 0010:
To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.
So Excerpt 0001 notes there are limits to how many layers a reader can keep straight in their head. "She knows that he knows" and "She knows that he knows that she knows" are easy to grasp. Add another layer, as in "She knows that he knows that she knows he knows", and our brains start having difficulty.

This is a good thing for a writer to know! First, because you you usually don't want to confuse your reader, but second, because sometimes you do. If you're creating a mystery, having a character who can keep five layers of understanding straight could give you the basis for either a new Sherlock Holmes or a great master villain. And you can be sure most of your readers won't be able to guess the story's real ending.

Excerpt 0010, however, echoes something Jim Butcher said on his LiveJournal: A story is about poetic justice. Evil-doers are punished and those who do good are rewarded. (I've blogged about this before.) Fiction satisfies our evolved-in desire to create a fair society.


What are your thoughts? Do you think science can shed a light on what writers need to accomplish if they want to create compelling books, or do you think creating fiction is better served by following our instincts about what works? After all, a study can only tease out one small bit at a time of the picture our subconscious might already grasp completely--how other people's brains work.

Although I did have to ask "What are your thoughts?", didn't I? Hee! That may argue in favour of letting the scientist sort it out for us.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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