Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fiction As An Aid to Thinking, or: Jacobs on Ambiguity

It has been a while since I've posted on current cognitive and brain science research that underlines the importance and power of imaginative writing, particularly fictional narratives, but then I came across Tom Jacobs' article last month in Pacific Standard, "Want to Learn How to Think? Read More," and realized I ought to write a little here about the work Jacobs discusses, and some of its implications. I should start by pointing that Jacobs' title misleads; he is writing not so much about learning how to think as about the distinctive ways researchers have found that reading certain kinds of texts, particularly fictional ones, shape and affect our thinking.

In his Pacific Standard article he focuses on recent findings by three psychologists at the University of Toronto, led by Maja Djikic, Senior Research Scholar and Director of the Self-Development Laboratory at Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who, in a paper they co-published earlier this year in The Creativity Research Journal, "Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure," discovered that people reading works of fiction, as opposed to works of nonfiction, tended when tested afterward to show more capacity for ambiguity as opposed to a need for order and cognitive closure.

In the experiment, Djikic and colleagues had 100 Toronto undergraduates read one of either 8 short stories, by major fiction writers including Wallace Stegner and Jean Stafford, or one of 8 short nonfiction pieces by major nonfiction writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Jay Gould.  Afterwards the study participants completed a survey measuring their "need for certainty and stability," based on questions such as "I don't like situations that are uncertain," and what Djikic and her co-researchers found was that the students reading the works of fiction scored "significantly" lower than those reading the nonfiction.

What the researchers also registered was that among self-described frequent readers of fiction or nonfiction, the effect was "particularly pronounced." They posited that this might be an effect of fiction's not requiring a reader to come to a definite conclusion (though we often do, or wrestle with one), and a result of the imaginative simulation of thinking styles--and I would add, behavior, spatial experiences, perceptions, etc.--of characters of all kinds. Jacobs quotes the paper, which says:

One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character. This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind.

I would add, as I have before in prior entries on this topic, that global and local effects of works of fiction work on our minds in various ways. Not only in terms of simulative thinking, but also in the ways that characterization, voice and plot, to pick three key elements, generate cognitive embodiment and mirroring effects. I would also point out that drilling down to the granular level, language itself is crucial here. Specific words and their effects, perceived through the ascending matrices of phonemic arrangement up through syntactic effects to the level of paragraphs, on up to the movement of the narrative itself, work, often unconsciously, in and on our minds.

Jacobs ends by gesturing, as so many articles of this type do, by putting the empirical in service of the instrumental, particularly government and corporate educational policy. He cites Djikic and her colleagues appeal, in their paper, for a rethinking of the current approach of diminished funding for and support of the arts and humanities, which is occurring at every educational level across the US. Additionally, at a moment when there are discussions about the "crisis" in the humanities (which is to say, discussions about alleged shrinking enrollments and majors, as well as decreased funding), and at a moment where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) study, in the service of the domestic and global careers and economies, dominate, the findings of Djikic and her colleagues, offer an important counterpoint.

Moreover, like similar studies I have posted about before, these findings should remind us that literature, especially imaginative writing and especially fiction, poetry and drama, are anything but frivolous and unworthy of our attention, that we still do not fully understand how they work, even after centuries of exploring them, and that counter to what someone like Lee Siegel says, they are very much worth not just enjoying as entertainment, but examining in a variety of ways within academe. They are among the oldest and demonstrably powerful creative technologies that human beings have created, and we should not forget this.

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