The fMRI study of reading from the last post pushed me down this path of inquiry. As we read a novel, we ‘enact’ in our minds the story virtually by using the same cells we use in real life. This is similar to the mirror cells, the ones we use, say, to lift a cup and drink coffee, that also light up when we see someone perform the same action or even mimic that action. Yet we know, i.e., our brains process the difference, when we act it out or we see or the action objectively and when we enact it virtually as we read. (I must point out that Susanne Langer was one of the first to elevate the theoretical importance of the concept ‘virtual’ as a part of her aesthetic theory way before we began to use computers to create worlds and avatars; see her 1953 book Feeling and Form). So as we read a novel (and following Langer when we engage with any art form) we construct the scene and narrative using the same capabilities we use in life (oh, that is Langer’s concept of art as vital forms of felt life). When characters appear, the system monitoring individuals lights up; when they talk, the systems, bilateral now, for conversation lights up; when they do things, the system detecting and monitoring biological actions (as opposed to rocks tumbling downhill) lights up; when characters feel and empathize, yes, those right hemisphere systems light up. We can get ‘caught up in a book” yet we still, for the most part, keep in mind the difference between the objective events of our life and the virtual forms of our art.
We must learn to read fully and some find this easier and more fulfilling than others. I have a friend who can’t be bothered, really, to read a novel when he can be fixing something or just taking it apart. After kids break the code of written language in early elementary school, they learn to visualize and keep narrative in mind and feel the experience of the characters. Think about our history here. Drama has been with us since even before writing. Poems or songs have been with us even longer, I suspect. Reflecting back to the post on the Glyph Learning Curve, we see that from coding business transactions to the hagiographies documenting the sacred authority of leaders to the very wonderful Odyssey and Iliad (remembering these are also histories), on to the Greek dramas and then religious myths (purported histories), we have learned how to use writing and reading to render cultural meaning. The modern novel is then a relatively recent development, think Don Quixote around 1605 or Tristram Shandy in the early 1700s. Both of these, I will point out, make full use of irony, another segment of the learning curve.
Through it all our neural systems maintain the distinction between the real life experience that impacts us and the virtual structures we build from our own impulses. This is a basic and non-trivial distinction. Consider OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. People who experience this condition act on what they feel to be necessities inherent in the world as they think about it. In a sense they mistake their own anxious patterning with outside law. Indeed, one aspect of the cognitive therapy for this disorder is to externalize the ‘voice’ of the compulsion by giving it a name, say ‘bad boss,’ and telling it you are in charge and not it. Similarly with depressive thinking wherein someone thinks their life is totally awful, it will always be awful, and they have no power to change it. They mistake their negative thoughts for objective conditions and one facet of therapy is to counter this thinking. And of course consider hallucinations of all sorts.
So we are discovering and understanding how our brains construct reality and then use these capabilities to construct virtual domains (which we can then communicate symbolically). I hope we soon learn both how we keep them distinct and how we sometimes mistake one for the other. Seems important somehow. I know that Sancho Panza worried about it for his friend, Don Quixote.“Please, Don, just stay away from the windmills”.