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Why Art Matters, According To Science

I posted, after the election, about art mattering, and voices mattering. I believe this based on first principles alone – people matter, and what they have to say matters. But since then, I know a lot of my writer friends have struggled to believe that their writing makes any difference. Sure, we say (it’s me as well), maybe we need art right now, but mine isn’t political enough, isn’t persuasive enough, isn’t this enough, isn’t that enough. Mine isn’t going to help anyone in today’s world.

One of the nice things about being an academic who studies creativity is that I sometimes have new answers to these doubts.

As a case in point – and please remember, this case is only one specific way in which art can help people – I’m going to describe some research on fiction and personality change. This is mostly based on the work summarized in the paper “The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self” by Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto. But don’t worry! I am not going to write this like an academic paper! It’ll be fun!

Djikic and Oatley, along with other psychologists, have run experiments in which participants do personality tests, then read literary fiction, then do the tests again. These are compared with a control group in which the participants read something else – sometimes nonfiction, sometimes a dry, courtroom-style summary of the events in the  story.

Usually, personality traits are stable. They rarely change, and it’s very difficult to change them through direct persuasion. But psychologists running these experiments found something strange. After reading fiction, a person’s personality becomes temporarily destabilized. If you do a personality test immediately after reading something, your answers may be different to what you usually give.

Moreover, everyone’s personality will be destabilized in a different way. One person might become less conscientious and more open after reading a story. Another person, reading the exact same story, will change their answers in a completely different way. These changes are mediated – that is, they partly depend on – the emotions a reader experiences during the story, which are also specific to the reader. They aren’t necessarily based on what the author intended to reader to feel, but on the idiosyncratic way each person reacts to what they’re reading.

Does this personality change last? Well, yes and no. Normally, it’s temporary. But if someone’s personality is already going in a direction where it can change, the temporary destabilizations caused by things like fiction help to nudge it along.

And we do see lasting patterns over time that seem to result from fiction reading. In particular, habitual fiction readers end up showing greater empathy than non-readers – even when controlling for things like IQ and education, which would logically make fiction books more accessible to some people than others.

Cool, but if the logical content intended by the author isn’t what causes this change, then what does? Djikic and Oatley suggest that it’s specifically the “literary” aspects of a text that make the difference. Literary style – phrasing things in an unusual and compelling way – makes elements of a text stand out and seem special, and this facilitates readers having a personal emotional reaction that they didn’t expect. “Showing” a character’s emotions, through their actions or the implications of their words, rather than “telling” them, seems to increase empathy specifically, since the reader has to pay more attention to subtle cues to what the character is feeling. The increase in empathy is also strongest for people who become very mentally immersed in a story, visualizing the events of the narrative in their head.

It’s worth noting here that, if you read specific papers about the psychology of fiction, many make a sharp distinction between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. This can be a little hard for genre writers like us to take. It makes sense on its face that literary fiction contains more stylistic devices than commercial fiction. But a lot of researchers, insisting on this distinction between literary and commercial, don’t test it directly. That is to say, they don’t test literary fiction with a commercial fiction control group. Instead, as I mentioned, they test literary fiction against non-fiction, or against special versions of literary fiction with some or all of the literary devices taken out. We all know, though, that it’s possible to use literary devices in any genre.

And when researchers do measure specific genres against each other, the results are a little surprising. Science fiction without a literary style does rather poorly at generating empathy. Litfic does better – but the very best genre for generating empathy is romance. (Think of that next time you are tempted to turn up your nose at a romance author!)

Many of these effects have been documented for other art forms too, such as visual art, music, and film. Art in general seems to be uniquely positioned to expand our minds by generating emotions in a way that’s personal and individually relevant to us.

This isn’t even getting into the other things art can do. For example, so far I’ve only talked about increasing empathy in a general sense, not about generating empathy for specific groups (such as a marginalized group). And I haven’t mentioned some of the things that science fiction is especially good at, such as imagining new solutions to societal problems. This isn’t meant to be a statement of the only thing fiction can do, or even the most important thing. But it’s one thing.

Like the protagonist in “A Spell To Retrieve Your Lover From The Bottom Of The Sea”, a good story can’t force anyone to change. But what it can do is create a space for change. A space where, for those who are willing, change and understanding become a little bit more possible.

Maybe, for some of us, that can be enough.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 5th, 2017 11:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing the reference on the latest research on the relationship between reading and empathy! I worked on this field in grad school, and my references are a bit out of date, so it's great to learn about some newer research, especially as I'm working on writing a book on the psychology of narrative immersion.

In the work I've been most familiar with, the researchers were making distinctions between two types of narrative immersion (or engagement, or "transportation"). In "full" immersion, the reader (or viewer or listener or game-player) is so absorbed in the story world that they lose awareness of the real world and tend to get emotionally fused with the point of view character. This is especially common when reading a thriller or a romance novel. In "reflective" immersion, the reader is does more thinking - their mind wanders away from the current moment in the story to other parts of the story, or to real-world situations. The researchers noted that reflective immersion is more common with literary works, and that full immersion is more common with genre fiction.

I think, though, that there's a benefit to distinguishing between two types of reflective immersion - one that's still focused in the story world, and one that's making connections between the story and the real world. Some stories invite mental effort simply to follow along, such as mysteries where the reader is making connections between the story present and earlier passages in the work, or fantasy and especially science fiction, where the reader has to build up an understanding of how the story world even works in order to be able to follow what's going on. If your brain is busy doing work like that but hasn't left the story world, I think of that as a sort of "reflective full immersion."

Anyway, I wanted to follow up on the points you were making about empathy. When you're fully immersed (as in a thriller or romance novel), you're getting one type of empathy, the type where you're experiencing the feelings of another person relatively directly. When you're reflectively immersed (as in a more literary work where you're drawing connections between the story and real life), you're more likely to experience a more cognitive form of empathy, such as compassion. Both types of immersion might have real world effects on the reader -- obviously compassion, but potentially also the more fully immersive experiences, especially if the reader likes to think about their full immersion experiences later rather than just compartmentalizing them as escapism.

And to your broader point about the value of art in dealing with current events - I personally think that art for escapism is one of the most valuable tools we have! Spending some time completely "elsewhere" on a regular basis is an excellent way to recharge ourselves. It's not just a guilty pleasure; it's valid and effective self-care.
Feb. 6th, 2017 12:35 am (UTC)
Thank you for the informative comment, Eve! This sort of thing is actually pretty tangential to my main research (I'm studying how computers can produce creative work, and therefore, what creativity is in the first place and how can we tell that it's there) so you're probably much better informed about it than me.

I've definitely seen something like the distinction between the two types of immersion that you're describing, but it was in a different context at the time (it was called literary foregrounding and backgrounding in what I read, and the work I read wasn't specifically about empathy) so I didn't think of it when writing this post up.

I definitely agree with escapism as a form of recharge, too. There are so many nice things art can do that I don't even think I could list them all!
Feb. 9th, 2017 09:10 pm (UTC)
Literary foregrounding and backgrounding - I'll have to see if I can find papers on that. Thanks!

I remember you mentioning your research before. It sounds fascinating. In a class I took on imagination, we explored creativity a bit, and I came away with the impression that it focuses on making unexpected lateral connections. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I remain curious about it.
Feb. 10th, 2017 04:01 pm (UTC)

There's actually a fair bit of controversy over how to define creativity, which is one of the things that makes it aggravating to study. But yes, unexpected lateral connections are often considered an important element.
Feb. 10th, 2017 07:37 pm (UTC)
When your dissertation is finished, I hope you'll let us know!
Feb. 11th, 2017 01:46 pm (UTC)
Sure, if you're interested!

Are you interested in links to papers aside from the dissertation that I have published?
Feb. 11th, 2017 07:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, please!
Feb. 12th, 2017 01:15 am (UTC)

So, right now, I have 4. (Plus my MSc research, which is in a bit of a different area and was also, quite frankly, bad research. I'm not sure why I passed my MSc defense because there were some LARGE holes methodologically in that work. Oh, well.)

I think the most interesting one to you would probably be this one, in which I survey the state of computer-generated poetry for non-computer experts: http://archive.bridgesmathart.org/2016/bridges2016-195.pdf (This paper is already very slightly out of date, lol. I have an expanded version out on submission to a journal rn.)

The second most interesting one would be the one where I describe a prototype poetry-making program that I actually made: http://m.archive.bridgesmathart.org/2015/bridges2015-37.pdf

The remaining two involve me investigating ways of evaluating poems. In the first one, I naively set out to field test some evaluation methods but found that none of them helped non-experts to competently evaluate poetry: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f79a/3d4530a79472e9f30628c8ea7e3514e43004.pdf

And in the second one, after maturing a little as a researcher, I set out to develop some domain-specific criteria for generative poetry: http://www.computationalcreativity.net/iccc2016/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Evaluating-digital-poetry.pdf

I think, sadly, the paper you're most interested in would be one that isn't out yet. I wrote a large survey/tutorial paper summarizing what computer scientists making creative programs should know about creativity. My supervisors and I believe it to be my best work, but it's still out on submission and who knows what the actual journals, etc will think.
Feb. 13th, 2017 08:36 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thanks! I look forward to reading through these, and to the publication of the one you mention at the end.

My very first direct interaction with a computer, back in about 1975, was to input words into a program that would then arrange them and repeat them in various patterns to produce poetry. As I was a vampire fan and privately something of a Victorian Goth, I was delighted to get my very own computer poems on the themes of blood and darkness...
Feb. 13th, 2017 11:25 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!

That sounds like a fun way to be introduced to a computer. You might recognize aspects of that program in some of the parts of that first paper I linked to.

(My first program of significant size, other than making shapes by moving the LOGO turtle around and the like, was a program that would randomly generate a synopsis of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. I have always been inordinately fond of random generation and Mad Lib-like things. Later, in high school, I was working on a MUD with the person I was dating at the time, but I kept getting sidetracked into random generating little details. Random artwork on the walls, random items in a shop, random fortunes in a fortune cookie, random dream sequences that the character would have if they fell asleep, random newspaper articles...)
Feb. 14th, 2017 02:13 am (UTC)
The Buffy program sounds fun!

I met my sweetheart on a MUD, but I didn't do much that was actually creative there. More like cleaning up typos and improving the help files - just admin stuff.
Feb. 19th, 2017 12:29 am (UTC)
Ada! I was downloading your articles today, and I realized that I really must recommend to you the play that I saw this week at my son's high school: "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard. It's about the relationship between science and the humanities, among many other things. The historical C.L. is mentioned several times (she was already on my mind because of the current Masterpiece Theater series about the young Queen Victoria), and the main character, Thomasina, a luminous young genius, is said to be based on the historical Ada.

The extremely witty script is available here, but I hope you can see this play someday too.
Feb. 19th, 2017 01:16 am (UTC)
How delightful! I'm not sure where and when I would see the play, but I'll certainly take a look at that script.
Feb. 6th, 2017 05:23 am (UTC)
And when researchers do measure specific genres against each other, the results are a little surprising. Science fiction without a literary style does rather poorly at generating empathy. Litfic does better – but the very best genre for generating empathy is romance. (Think of that next time you are tempted to turn up your nose at a romance author!)

That actually makes sense to me. I tend to associate science fiction without much of a style with so-called hard sf, which is generally less about personalities than about mechanics. Romance as a genre, on the other hand, is intimately concerned with the interior landscapes of its characters: what they think, how they feel.

I am delighted to know that style is a factor in the empathic effectiveness of a narrative. Eat statistics, everyone who ever called my prose word salad.

Thanks for the citation. I always want to read the paper if I can get hold of it, so I'll see if I can track this one down.
Feb. 6th, 2017 05:16 pm (UTC)
That actually makes sense to me. I tend to associate science fiction without much of a style with so-called hard sf, which is generally less about personalities than about mechanics. Romance as a genre, on the other hand, is intimately concerned with the interior landscapes of its characters: what they think, how they feel.

Yeah, that's pretty logical.

I am delighted to know that style is a factor in the empathic effectiveness of a narrative. Eat statistics, everyone who ever called my prose word salad.

Feb. 14th, 2017 12:09 pm (UTC)
This makes a lot of sense to me. I wrote an essay in 2014 that later ended up being accepted in Jim Hines' Invisible, in a roundabout sort of way. The entire link is here, but what I want to quote, as I believe it's relevant:

This is why diversity is important, for so many things. This is why it is important to delve beyond the default. I won't say that the books I read were not problematic, especially by current views; hardly. But they were dearly important to a sheltered child who needed desperately to read about people like her, and people not like her. Some of what I thought was "not me" later turned out to be exactly me.

I've been swearing up and down that fiction can change the world for well over ten years now. No, it's not magic. No, it doesn't work overnight. But every person whose views are changed ripple outward. Also, those who need to read such stories about themselves.

This is part of why I'm writing the fanfic I am. I'm taking a break from original fic, because I got to the point of taking it too seriously. It wasn't fun anymore. So, I have a favorite series with a disable dlesbian (or asexual, or both; it's up to reader interpretation) character. Neither she nor the (actually, also disabled) gay male character got romances despite nearly everyone pairing up, and the few who didn't either won't work for pragmatic and practical reasons, or in the case of one other, would require an entire major subplot of healing from extreme trauma.

So, even though I know it's not cared for by a lot of people, I created an original character for the fic. The canon series has a lot of gender essentialism, but there's an offhand line in one of the books that got me thinking. The books have sentient, magic-using animals (that are the same overall race as the human magic users), and it's mentioned there might be others that weren't discovered.

This gave me the idea of a non-binary species that has hidden because they don't know how they would be taken. This is supposed to be the secondary main plot (primary is the romantic relationship, but I tie my primary and secondary plots -- or internal and external plots -- together so that the story hinges on the characters working together), but I already have three subplots. I'm afraid this may be a novel. This was not what I signed up for. Stupid can't-think-in-short brain. @_@

Anyway. I'm not expecting this to do anything more than offer folks who love the series some squee and cheer and happy -- because right now? I believe that's just as important as stories that change. Stories that uplift people, allow them a respite from the dumpster fire world we're living in right now, make them smile and laugh and have fun reading what I've written. Yes. That's important, too.

Light and laughter are dearly needed right now, and in short supply.

(Edit because I fail at HTML.)

Edited at 2017-02-14 12:10 pm (UTC)
Feb. 14th, 2017 04:45 pm (UTC)
Definitely agreed on all these counts. Bringing light and laughter to a dark world is 100% an important function of art, and one that's sometimes forgotten when we think of art's role in dark times.

Your fanfiction sounds cool - the only reason I haven't been reading it is because I'm not very familiar with the world you're writing in. (I believe you may recall that I gave the source material a try and bounced off of it hard. Which doesn't mean it can't be valuable to many others!)

But I remember your essay, too, even though I didn't know you very well when you wrote it. It's a good essay!
Feb. 16th, 2017 12:37 pm (UTC)
I think love and laughter are underrated even in better times than these. I agree they are especially needed now. I have a mix of romance and SFF authors on my Facebook feed; I co-admin a rather large romance writer's community, so I have a whole bunch of them on my FB feed.

(If you're wondering why I, who primarily writes SFF, am a co-admin, it's because we are welcoming to writers of other genres. The general rule is, don't shit on the romance genre. I seem to find it impossible to not include a romance in my stories, and the way I write them is to give both/more characters complementary skill sets and the romance happens as they go through the Plot. That falls under "with romantic elements", which, actually, a LOT of the Divas write.)

But I see from the Divas, especially, that they feel it's super important to continue working on their romance stories because right now, people need stories to take their mind off the horrible things happening and have some brain candy and hope and belief in love and that life goes on even when bad things are happening, like bad guys trying to blow up the good guys. Obligatory: Not all romance is brain candy. Some of it deals with pretty serious issues.

As for my story, I'm attempting to make it as friendly to folks who aren't as familiar -- or who might not have read the series in awhile and forgot some things. I've read the series at least a dozen times over and I still end up looking things up on the setting wiki.

I've been considering writing a lexicon (that I will update with new chapters for explanation as needed) to accompany the fic series because I've heard multiple people now tell me they either couldn't get through the books because of various triggers (and I get that; the later books aren't so much but the original trilogy is a walking trigger warning; in the A03 tags on my fic I literally have "Black Jewels is its own trigger warning" as a warning). But I've had several say, "You're writing a lesbian romance AND your main plot includes a non-binary race of magic using animals, I WANT TO READ THIS BUT I CAN'T GET THROUGH THE SOURCE MATERIAL."

Feedback/opinion on that appreciated; it would take a bit of time to go over but not so very much as to be a terrible burden, esp since I'd update alongside chapters with the "need to know".
Feb. 16th, 2017 01:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, "walking trigger warning" is definitely a description for those books. But you know, I think that if your fic fits that description less than the source material does, and if you had a lexicon like that, I'd give it a try. Non-binary magic using animals (and a thoughtful exploration of how those animals would interact with a mostly binary / gender essentialist culture of humans) sounds pretty darn cool.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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