As a writer, I’m fascinated with how our brains interpret stories. Not only our personal narratives which we use to make sense of our world and our place in it, but especially the magic that happens when fictional characters enter our head and change our lives. Have you ever read a book where you can’t stop thinking about the main characters afterward? It feels like you lived through whatever that character lived through on the page.
Novelists call this phenomenon “suspension of disbelief.” We know what’s happening isn’t real and isn’t even happening to us, and yet our brains act as though it is. Why does this happen?
Researchers have discovered that our brains use two separate systems for analyzing a narrative, both located in different parts of the brain’s frontal lobe. One is a rapid system that immediately believes what is perceived. That is, you believe the narrative completely as you work to comprehend the story. But this system inhibits the frontal lobe of the brain to keep us from acting on what we are believing at the moment, so we’re not running around the room trying to get away from vampires, zombies or rogue assassins.
A different, slower system judges the probability of the narrative being true or fitting into reality as we know it. That’s right, the judging comes after the believing. This means that we accept the story as true until we actively construct our disbelief (usually after the story is over).
This leaves us humans in a state which researchers call “lie blindness.” It means we are notoriously bad at catching people who are lying. When asked to guess who is lying in a video, test subjects will only guess correctly about 54% of the time. You might as well flip a coin and you’d be right almost the same amount of times.
While this is fascinating (at least to me), you might notice that it didn’t exactly answer the question of what causes this phenomenon. That’s because scientists don’t really know. Is it “lie blindness” that causes us to accept stories at face value or something else?
One theory states that, when reading fictional stories, our brains stop testing the reality of the situation because the reader doesn’t plan to act or change the novel. At first, I disagreed with this theory. I think we actually transfer a portion of our reality testing to the fictional world as we imagine what we would do in the place of the characters. But then, I realized there might be a nugget of truth in the idea that we suspend our belief when we don’t plan to change what we’re reading.
As an author, I can be ruthless with my characters. I kill them, maim them, take away their best friends and shred their security blankets—all in the name of suspense—and it doesn’t bother me a bit. But when I read a novel, the experience is totally different. I cry when the main character loses her father. I bite my nails while she’s running for her life, even though I know she probably won’t die in the end. Somehow, the fact that I change my own stories reminds me they’re not real. When I read someone else’s stories, though, I’m convinced it’s real—at least for that moment.
Yep, there was a reason Jesus told all those parables. God wired us to understand and believe in stories.
What do you think? Do we turn off the reality testing part of our brain when we read fiction? Or do we transfer it to the page?
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/24532534@N02/6425826315″>Glowy brain</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>