By Natalie Samson
In the competitive world of book publishing, when the going gets tough, the tough get creative. In recent years that’s mostly meant investing in digital projects like e-books and apps. But one group of researchers suggests publishers might find great new innovation in an unexpected discipline: the psychology of fiction.
Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto and a leading expert in the field, says that for far too long, scientists have “sneered” at fiction and its effects on the human psyche.
“Psychologists like methods where they can very carefully justify the conclusions that are drawn because the methods they use are statistically sophisticated and reliable, so that anybody else who would go through the same procedures would find the same results,” he explains. It was through his research on emotions and his own creative writing that Oatley, author of the novels The Case of Emily V. (Secker & Warburg, 1993), A Natural History (Penguin Canada, 1998), and Therefore Choose (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), began exploring the possibilities of scientifically studying fiction.
“People always talk about books changing us. Could we actually measure that?” he says.
As a grad student at U of T, Raymond Mar, now an assistant professor of psychology at York University and associate editor of Scientific Study of Literature, worked with Oatley on doing just that. Mar sums up the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional, and has all these different components.”
From there, Mar says, it wasn’t much of a stretch to wonder: if we’re engaging in these various social interactions through fiction, might it be the case that those who read a lot of fiction are developing better social skills than those who don’t?