Fiction Is Not about Communication. It's about Communion

"Art is not about communication. It's about communion." artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at IdeaFestival 2013

Having posted an IF Conversation with Maria Konnikova on Tuesday, I was reminded of her view of the "psychologist as novelist" by a Nicholas Carr blog entry on how fiction changes minds - not by presenting a narrative with lessons to be absorbed or a story with a particular kind of information, but by physically changing us from the inside. Carr points out that while reading works of fiction, the brain physically mirrors the setting, the themes and the protagonists and antagonists. The results are striking.

Psychologists and neurobiologists have begun studying what goes on in our minds as we read literature.... One of the trailblazers in this field is Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto and the author of several novels, including the acclaimed The Case of Emily V. 'For a long time,' Oatley told the Canadian magazine Quill & Quire, 'we’ve been talking about the benefits of reading with respect to vocabulary, literacy, and these such things. We’re now beginning to see that there’s a much broader impact.' A work of literature, particularly narrative literature, takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways. In his 2011 book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Oatley explained that 'we don’t just respond to fiction (as might be implied by the idea of reader response), or receive it (as might be implied by reception studies), or appreciate it (as in art appreciation), or seek its correct interpretation (as seems sometimes to be suggested by the New Critics). We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dream, our own enactment.' Making sense of what transpires in a book’s imagined reality appears to depend on 'making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly.'”

"...When, for example, a character in a story puts a pencil down on a desk, the neurons that control muscle movements fire in a reader’s brain. When a character goes through a door to enter a room, electrical charges begin to flow through the areas in a reader’s brain that are involved in spatial representation and navigation."

Carr goes on to point out that while visions of reading-as-software would have us think of it as a social event, brain studies tell us that the opposite occurs: "the reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply." Nor should we think of reading as a one-way exercise with the goal of "communicating." While ebooks and sharing apps certainly have merits, for Carr the "technical enthusiasts" who think of the fiction as portable data are missing the profoundly inward and expansive rite or reading. Like Carr, Konnikova and Lozano-Hemmer, I find it remarkable how willingly we've swapped the idea of art and literature as a set of shared experiences that can enlarge our range of sympathies for the much poorer model of art and literature as a form of exchange whose value is captured by what can be said, or what can be measured, in its passing.

Read Carr's outstanding essay here.

Stay curious!