The Willing Suspension of DisbeliefOct 18, 2005
Why don't we run out of the movie theatre when a monster shows on the screen? What kind of mental state is the willing suspension of disbelief?
Have you ever watched a foreign film without subtitles in a language you don’t speak ? You probably didn’t watch the whole thing, because—no matter how worked up the actors got—you didn’t follow it and they’re just actors anyway. Contrast that feeling of lack of interest with the intense feeling of engagement you get watching your favorite film. For me that would be American Beauty or The Godfather, Part I. Let’s call the first kind of feeling the this-is-lame feeling and the second the this-is-awesome feeling.
Here’s the puzzle I want to raise, which I think is the same as the one John was getting at in his most recent blog. It seems like—rational creatures that we are—we should be having the this-is-lame experience for any fictional work or drama that we take in. After all, we know that the events depicted aren’t real; all that’s real is a bunch of people making noise and playing with props on stage or in front of a camera. We know this. Worse yet, there might only be words or flickering images on the screen, with the authors or actors long dead. How and why is it that a bunch of fakers manage to give us the this-is-awesome experience? People are normally committed not to take fakers seriously.
Consider the magnitude of this puzzle! Society spends billions of dollars and who-knows-how-many hours on movies, novels, video games, plays, and TV shows. Why so much expenditure for so much Unreality? You may explain the expenditure by saying fictional drama gives pleasure. But that just pushes the question back. Why do we enjoy certain, but not other, forms of Unreality so much?
If you like evolutionary psychology—as I do in some moods—you could put the puzzle like this. How on earth did the disposition to take pleasure in stories we know aren’t true evolve? Isn’t spending time on such stories just wasting valuable time that could be spent surviving and reproducing? We can make sense of people’s enjoyment of true stories from an evolutionary perspective, because a propensity to enjoy true stories might get us to listen in ways that produce knowledge (which could ultimately be used to help us survive and reproduce). But how do we make sense of our enjoyment of stories we know aren’t actual? Why wasn’t this propensity weeded out by natural selection?
I’m not going to solve this mystery here. My purpose is rather to quicken our sense of the mystery; fiction is so common that we take enjoyment of it for granted, but we shouldn’t. In keeping with this purpose, I want to take a few paragraphs to shoot down two rather tempting approaches to solving the mystery and thereby show that it’s still a pretty big mystery after all.
First, a lot of people think taking in fiction brings learning and knowledge. (I actually heard my Dad say this recently. Sorry, Dad.) Fiction doesn’t teach us facts about the actual world, so the story goes, but experiencing fictional works exercises our ability to think about possible situations that might arise. We rehearse in our minds what might happen in certain situations and learn how to respond. Thus, to complete the story, fiction equips us for life.
This solution is bunk. Socrates pretty much already demolished it in Plato’s Ion. Ion, a Homeric rhapsode, argues in that dialogue that studying Homer helps people become better generals, warriors, deliberators, horsemen, and the like. Socrates makes the point in response that if you actually consider the relevant passages from Homer on warfare and such, you see that they’re totally unhelpful for actual situations. Any real general that fought like a Homeric general would get wiped. The fictional events are stylized and unrealistic enough so as to be useless for purposes of generating applicable knowledge. But Homer is one of the greatest dramatists in history at generating the this-is-awesome feeling. So whatever it is in fiction that generates the this-is-awesome feeling, it can’t be generation of useful knowledge about how to act in “possible situations.” The mystery remains.
Here’s the second attempted solution. We have a lot of emotional centers in the brain—amygdala, hypothalamus, etc.—that respond to stimuli in a way that’s largely independent of higher cortical processing. If someone throws a rubber snake at you, you could well feel fear even if you know the snake isn’t real. If you add that going through emotional experiences often leaves us feeling good whenever we come out well in the end, then maybe we could explain why fiction gives us the this-is-awesome feeling as follows: the actions and events depicted in fictional drama stimulate the emotions without the participation of higher cortical processing or higher belief systems, leaving us with an emotional this-is-awesome experience despite our not believing in the events. The idea is that lack of belief in the reality of the story doesn’t matter as long as the images or events depicted are such as to get the emotions going—spark the emotional systems. Reason doesn’t matter for fictional enjoyment. (Book X of Plato’s Republic actually gives a picture of fictional enjoyment that looks something like this.)
But this “solution” doesn’t work either. Remember the experience of the foreign film without subtitles—the this-is-lame feeling. There were probably many emotionally charged scenes depicted in the film—kung fu fights or angry arguments to excite the emotional centers in the brain—but the overall experience was still lame. The reason it was lame was that a higher-level understanding of the events was missing. (Or, if you did have the this-is-awesome feeling at the kung fu film, it was probably because you could follow the plot despite not knowing the language.) So some sort of higher reasoning is needed to get the this-is-awesome feeling after all. Thrills of the rubber snake variety won’t keep us in our seats for two hours. Mere images to excite the emotional centers aren’t sufficient to explain the this-is-awesome feeling of good fictional drama. So the second attempted solution doesn’t work. The mystery remains.
Will the show on Tuesday solve the mystery? I think John, Ken, and Steven (our guest) will make a good crack at it. But it’s tough. We might never figure out the real solution (I actually think the real solution, whatever it is, would involve revising and somehow combining the two solutions mentioned here). But it’s something to think about next time you’re driving to Blockbuster to drop another four bucks to see moving pictures of guys in tight pants. Who knows? Maybe your sense of the mystery will heighten the enjoyment even more.