17 January 2008

Why Do We Work So Hard at Telling Lies?

Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik is the author of The Scientist in the Crib (and also sister of occasional fantasy writer Adam Gopnik).

She has spoken and written about the appeal of fantasy literature for children, including this Slate article from 2005 which debunked some traditional notions and put forward her own ideas:

There is no evidence that fantasy is therapeutic or that children use fantastic literature to "work out their problems" or as "an escape." . . . Even the very youngest children already are perfectly able to discriminate between the imaginary and the real, whether in books or movies or in their own pretend play. . . . Children may have such an affinity for the imaginary just because they are so single-mindedly devoted to finding the truth, and because their lives are protected in order to allow them to do so.
But that still leaves some big questions unanswered. More recently, on the Edge's Third Culture discussion site, Gopnik offered further theoretical thoughts on the evolutionary advantage of storytelling:
The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them - a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.

But fiction doesn't fit that picture - it's easy to see why we want the truth, but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability. . . .

I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you're sitting in. Every object in that room - the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone's mind. . . .

In fact, I think now that the two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds - are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels.
I would have gone with the theory that stories aren't real, but they're a way of putting what's real into an understandable form. Life doesn't always fit that mold, but some parts of life do, and it's useful to understand those parts of life.

In looking around that room, we're not only seeing things that didn't exist in the Pleistocene. We're also not seeing every little detail, or at least not processing it entirely in our brains. We're organizing sights into categories (my books, all the light bulbs as one system, cat different from carpet). Telling stories--with their beginning, middle, and end, their logical causation, their emphases on characters driving action--is another way to organize the nearly chaotic events of the world.

In a way, therefore, fictional storytelling is an exercise, an experiment to gauge what seems like a plausible explanation of the world. The fact that we know those stories are fictional may indeed make such exercise a "spandrel," an unnecessary side effect of our brains' power to find order in facts. But practice makes perfect.

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