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Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, our distant ancestors organized sounds, symbols, and gestures to express ideas unrelated to necessities of the moment. It was the start of something big.

Their use of “figurative language” decoded dreams and feelings. It allowed them to convey to others “an experience, a thought, a hope, or some other facet of the imagination,” anthropologist Agustín Fuentes explains in his book The Creative Spark. 

“They were developing the capacity for a central facet of all human lives: the ability to tell stories.”

From this, fictional narrative emerged. It equipped us to strengthen relationships and bring meaning to our lives. Our capacity to create fiction and our affection for it sprung from the imagination, an evolutionary flourish that “makes possible all our thinking about what is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be.”  Alongside food, shelter and water, around-the-clock access to fictional narratives seemed to join our list of basic needs.

I’ve been the beneficiary of humanity’s love affair with fiction. After years of writing journalism and academic articles constrained by realities, I discovered the joy of conjuring up a collection of characters whose lives unfold in my mystery novels. Now I get to assign real-life emotions to fictional characters, a process that requires me to reflect on my past relationships and to imagine future experiences. In doing so, my engagement with the fictional characters enriches my interactions with flesh-and-blood characters. The benefits multiply when readers tell me about their experiences with the characters. When they do, they almost always connect their reactions to the book to experiences of their own. Readers and I find shared friendships with the fictional characters.

As social beings, we yearn for human connection. When we find it, in between the mating and fighting, we talk. And talk, and talk, and talk.

“We like nothing better than a good conversation,”

writes behavioral scientist Daniel Nettle. Recounting daily life moment by moment – a conversational sort of cinéma verité – would bore others. To avoid that, and to gain status with peers, we dramatize events through “an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.”

This is how an ordinary fish becomes a great white shark that eats swimmers on the Long Island shore. Fifty years ago this summer, an “intensified version” of seaside life gripped the country. We couldn’t get enough of Jaws. Two-hundred and fifty years prior, it was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that captivated attention. A century before that, stories delivered from London’s stages drew thousands of daily ticket buyers.

Compelled to express ourselves through fictional narratives, we created plays, novels, radio dramas, movies and more. To meet demand for the stories, we built theaters, movie houses, libraries, and bookstores. Then we built systems that bounce signals off the heavens to deliver stories to devices in our hands. To talk about stories, we gathered in salons and public houses and created book clubs, games and outlets devoted entirely to conversation about the fictional characters with whom we develop emotional relationships. Along the way, producers and distributors figured out we would eagerly expend labor to earn money to pay for it all. 

Emotional transportation

“Literature is in league with the emotions,” the philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes. Thanks to our imaginations, we have the capacity to lose ourselves in stories, an experience researchers call “emotional transportation.” It’s this mechanism that pulls us into states where fiction can increase our empathy and social cognition.

Reading fiction helps us read the room. By simulating interactions with the characters we encounter, we become more other-oriented. We get better at perceiving real-life social cues and interpreting facial expressions. Further, engaging with fiction may enhance trauma therapy, and fictional narratives are central to bibliotherapy.

Evidence of causality is mixed. At least one meta-analysis affirms that reading fiction can improve social cognition. In a study that randomly assigned six-year-old children to music lessons, drama lessons, or no lessons, children receiving drama lessons showed improved adaptive social behavior – evidence of fiction’s effects on the social and leadership skills children need to navigate the world.

A certain kind of dream

When stories carry us away, the firing of brain chemicals makes “fictional things come to seem real in our bodies.” So our mouths water when Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene describes tables set with “a huge hot roast of beef, fat buttered lima-beans, tender corn smoking on the cob, thick red slabs of sliced tomatoes, rough savory spinach, hot yellow corn-bread, flaky biscuits, a deep-dish peach and apple cobbler spiced with cinnamon, tender cabbage, deep glass dishes piled with preserved fruits — cherries, pears, peaches.”

It’s as if the fiction writer is whispering in our ears “to provoke a certain kind of dream,” writes Keith Oatley, a novelist and cognitive psychologist. Researchers at the University of Texas Imagination and Cognition Lab found that when children engage with stories that include “fantastical events,” they learn to differentiate between the improbable and the impossible and become more open to the likelihood of an improbable event occurring. Fictional narratives are manifestations of what Fuentes describes as the human drive to “to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meaning(s), and to cast our aspiration far and wide, limited neither by personal experience nor material reality.” Novelist Brad Meltzer says we use fiction to “share our dreams.”

Given all this dreaming, stories scare the dickens out of authoritarians. They fear fiction’s power to “subvert the notion that things have to be the way they are,” according to Mark Vonnegut, a physician, writer and son of author Kurt. Hitler nationalized the film industry to control access to stories. South Africa’s Apartheid government banned 26,000 books. In the pre-Civil War U.S., most Southern states made it illegal to teach slaves and freed Black people to read. Still, the pull of stories proved irresistible, and people of color risked torture or death and learned to read in secret.

Finding meaning in the phantasmagoria of life

The human imagination is the source of our desire to find and make meaning. The imagination is also the source of our capacity to create mental pictures of outcomes and alternate realities that we cannot forecast using available information and experience. Not only that, imagination enables us to hope for these outcomes in ways that lead us to expend resources to pursue them. Storytelling blossoms from this creative thinking, as does our capacity for religious belief. We untether aspirations from reality’s constraints.

In this way, storytelling is braided into “perception, meaning, imagination and hope,” which are “as central to the human evolutionary story as are bones, genes, and ecologies.”

Put another way: Life, when experienced as a series of unrelated sensations and phenomena, is unbearable. Thus, we are highly motivated to find meaning. In pursuit of it, we create and absorb fictional narratives. Describing a dozen functions the imagination performs for us, Leslie Stevenson of St. Andrews University recognizes the abilities to “create works of art that express something deep about the meaning of life” and to “appreciate things that are expressive or revelatory about the meaning of human life.”

Joan Didion, in The White Album, explained how “we interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” And this is how, according to Didion, we use stories to find meaning in the “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Audiences bring their own ideas to fictional stories. We “co-construct” the tales to create the meaning we desire. Elisions make room for us to fill in our own thoughts. Character features and plot points invite us to enrich scenes with knowledge accrued from personal experiences. We breathe life into fictional characters to round out their “emotional states, their personal history, their relationships with other characters, or … their physical appearance,” according to psychologists Joshua Quinlan and Raymond Mar. Reading fictional stories, we experience “hallucinations” in order to hear character voices. All of this increases our emotional attachment to the places and people in the stories.

No mere frill

Nussbaum agrees literature is subversive, given how it helps us imagine futures outside the “normative sense of life.” This function, she declares, is “no mere frill.”

Echoing Aristotle, Nussbaum argues that “history shows us ‘what happened,’ whereas works of literary art shows us ‘things such as might happen.’” She argues for putting novels at the center of public life, “not only in our homes and schools, shaping the perceptions of children, but also in our schools of public policy and development studies, and in our government and courts, and even in our law schools – wherever the public imagination is shaped and nourished – as essential parts of an education for public rationality.”

Nussbaum makes the case for literature because of its capacity to ignite emotions, not despite it. Whereas others, from ancient philosophers to today’s policymakers, may dismiss emotions as leading to unstable or, heaven help us, irrational decision-making, for Nussbaum, emotions are “essential elements in good reasoning … even when we are doing economics!”

The notion that fictional narratives can unlock thinking that moves us beyond today’s status quo recalls an idea G.K. Chesterton introduced more than a century ago and subsequent writers have popularized. Stories matter, they say, not because we lose touch with reality. We don’t come to believe monsters, dragons and the Wicked Witch of the West are real. Stories matter because they teach us we can defeat them.