Friday, December 2, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: The Psychology of Reading Fiction with Dr. Keith Oatley

Dr. Keith Oatley is Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and it is due to the hard work of committee member Diana (pictured here!) that he graced us with his presence at RA in a day. His slides are here.

Dr. Oatley has written extensively about the psychology of reading fiction (see here). He opened his talk by describing character in a novel as being made up of both actions and what happens “beneath the surface,” what is visible and invisible. The relationship between the two is what the psychology of fiction is all about. One of the unique things about a novel or a film is that we can be ourselves and another character when reading or watching: this is “the centre of the psychology of fiction. We take the author's instructions and we mentally create the imagined world.”

Oatley made an interesting comparison with the process of meditation: in reading fiction, we insert the intentions of the protagonist into the part of our mind with which we usually make our own plans. In essence, their plans become are plans: we feel our own emotions in the circumstances in which the protagonist finds him/herself. Studies are beginning to show a correlation between reading fiction and empathy: the more fiction you read, the more empathetic you are and the better you are at understanding others. This could be a kind of “expertise” being developed: for instance, if you read a lot of novels about romantic relationships, you develop better skills in these relationships in real life.

An interesting study was done by Oatley and his colleagues in which a “small personality change” (proportional to the emotions felt) was documented by subjects who were given a Chekov story to read, compared to a control group given a nonfiction re-writing of the same story. One might be able to conclude that “the story enables people to change, but it doesn't make people change.”

Another interesting observation Oatley made was that studies have shown, preliminarily, that people who may be “avoiders” of emotional engagement in real life actually feel empathy more strongly in fiction – perhaps fiction can circumvent that avoidance?
Oatley closed with two wonderful quotes:
  • Proust on his books: they allow people to be readers of themselves, not of my book. My book is the “magnifying glass by which I could give them the means by which they read within themselves.”
  • George Eliot on writing: "It's a set of experiments to see what we humans are capable of."

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