By Patricia Cohen
March 31, 2010
The New York Times Website: www.nytimes.com
I found this really cool albeit mind-blowing article on The New York Times' site. It talks about 'the science of English', why we get wrapped up in fiction novels and why we can only keep track of three "mental states" at a time i.e. -"He said she believed he liked...."
One theory in the article is that evolution influenced humans' love of fiction and the free indirect style of writing (as is exhibited in 19th-century Jane Austen books) evolved because it satisfied an intense interest in other people's secret thoughts and motivations."
An interesting quote:
The road between the two cultures - science and literature - can go both ways. "Fiction provides a new perspective on what happens in evolution," said William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis University.
To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls "altruistic punishers," people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. "to give us an incentive to monitor and ensure co-operation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage" at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot. "It's not that evolution give us insight into fiction," Mr. Flesch said, "but that fiction gives us insight into evolution."
Basically, IMO this explains everything from hearsay high school and work place gossip disseminated from some third or subsequent party to our fascination with soap operas and romance novels to pop culture (i.e. movies of Twilight's ilk, and the motivations of today's media and their consumers...)
Just as our "intense interest in other people's secret thoughts and motivations" fuelled the plot lines of 19th century fiction novels, it has spawned and continues to be the foundation of entire industries.
Why have the sagas of Tiger Woods, Sandra Bullock and others kept us clicking and reading? Though we know intellectually that those people are real, their unfathomable wealth, drama, physical distance from us and our lack of access to them renders them fictional characters, villains and heroes to vilify and adore. The same thinking applies to those sixth-degree of separation tidbits we hear in our lives - the people involved are just loosely related to us enough to capture our attention and emotions, yet not have their trials and problems become our deep and direct concern.
Gossip, whether regarding someone in our world or Hollywood's is often irresistible to us for many reasons, namely for its seductive sense of drama. Tales filled with nobility and cruelty, love and hate, truth and lies eject splashes of colour into our otherwise grey lives.
Why have reality T.V., pro wrestling, tawdry tales of celebrities' affairs and the advent of major TV networks' crime-drama empires endured over decades - think Law & Order, CSI and others - to retain what has become an often fickle viewership? Because in a confusing world, the formats and plot lines are predictable, familiar and dependable. Like a Rubik's cube, the make-up of the puzzle remains the same and yet there are thousands of variations of the hero/villain dynamic.
Insightful article, and thought-provoking without falling into the trap of scolding and arrogance. I love this stuff that makes people stop and think, and strives to answer the 'Whys' of life, instead of just racing to satisfy our insatiable appetite for this cotton candy, empty calorie knowledge without question.
We should be questioning the people who don't challenge our demands, not those who do.