Lisa Zunshine was awarded travel support based on her work on
Why We Read Fiction
My title is inspired by the question that I asked myself about fourteen years ago, when I first came to this country and was going through one of those periods of reading fiction voraciously. It was then that I first started wondering what is this strange craving? Science can explain much of what happens in our brain and the rest of the body when we want to eat, to drink, and to sleep, but what about wanting to read? It can certainly feel as strong as a mild hunger. Perhaps, if deprived for some time, one can even become seriously ravenous for fiction and wax violent when flashed with the cover of Pride and Prejudice? I wouldn’t know because I have never dared to experiment with myself by not reading when I wanted to. I remember thinking about these issues but also saying to myself that those are metaphysical and idiosyncratic questions that nobody can ever answer and that nobody would really care about. Today, however, I am reconsidering both my questions and my erstwhile certainty that they are not worth our attention. I believe that a conceptual framework emerging from recent research in cognitive science offers us a series of still tentative but nevertheless exciting insights into cravings that are satisfied, but also at the same time intensified when we read fiction.
My argument draws on two particular areas of research in cognitive psychology and cognitive anthropology. The first area concerns our “Theory of Mind” (also known as our “mind-reading” capacity), that is, a cluster of adaptations that enable us to attribute to people thoughts, beliefs, and desires based on their observable behavior. The second focuses on the closely related “metarepresentational” ability, that is, a cluster of adaptations that make it possible for us to monitor sources of our representations (including our representations of other people’s and our own mental states). I argue that whereas all fictional texts build on our Theory of Mind and metarepresentational ability, some works of fiction engage them in particularly focused ways. Many of us come to enjoy such engagement and need it as a steady supplement to our daily social interactions.