Wednesday 3 December 2008

Broccoli of the Mind

A few weeks ago Liam Durcan, the neurologist author of Garcia's Heart (2008, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart) and I were interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The Next Chapter. It is in a free CBC podcast, the 18 October edition. You can listen to our discussion by clicking on the play button at the end of this post.

Shelagh Rogers started off her interview with us by asking whether reading does for the mind what bran flakes and broccoli do for the body? I answered by describing the research led by Raymond Mar which showed that, as compared with people who read predominantly non-fiction, people who read fiction have better empathy and theory of mind and the research led by Maja Djikic which showed that, as compared with the same information in a non-fictional format, people who read a short story by Chekhov undertook some change in their personalities.

Liam Durcan then raised the issue of unreliable narrators. I think this is an interesting question, not so much because people in ordinary life are necessarily unreliable, but because everyone we meet can be a bit of a challenge to get to know at all well. It's not even that easy to know ourselves. Thus, working out what an unreliable narrator is up to, and what he or she is really thinking and feeling, may give us good practice at understanding others and ourselves.

We then discussed differences between fiction and non-fiction. To read non-fiction is to read about something: world politics, for instance, or the history of steamships. But fiction goes further. It enables us to enter a particular world, to take part in imagined situations.

Shelagh Rogers asked whether there was a difference between reading books and watching television or films. Liam Durcan thought there probably was, because reading encourages reflection and reassessment. I agree in part, but I am less sure. We have not yet done a direct empirical comparison. It seems to me that a good film relies on the imagination almost as much as does a novel or short story. As one imagines oneself into a situation in a movie, although the whole thing may whizz past more quickly than when we are reading, in a good film there is the same invitation to understand the characters, the same opportunity to reflect on their actions.


scot in exile said...

is fiction v non fiction really the best distinction?

where would someone put chatwin's travelogues in such categories?

does garcia marquez's news of a kidnapping have less empathy teaching quality than love in the time of cholera?

Keith Oatley said...

Well, thank you, Scot-in-Exile. Yes, the distinction of fiction versus non-fiction is very coarse, and I agree that Chatwin and some of Garcia Marquez that is not fiction, might be better than some writing that is formally fiction. Part of the difficulty is that although we could construct a different distinction, and then do a study on it, we don't yet have a good grip on what this distinction might be. That is part of the issue that we started to face in trying to make some proposals about what characteristics there might be of Psychologically Significant Fiction (see our archive), where we propose four categories, some of which could easily include some kinds of biography, journalism, and so on.

Raymond A. Mar said...

If I may add my 2 cents here, the key distinction is really between narrative and expository forms of text, rather than fiction versus nonfiction. It is the presentation of a (psychologically) realistic social world that is important, not whether something is based on actual events or not. Aristotle had something to say about this in his Poetics, and we discuss this point in our papers.

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