By Helen De Cruz
Seeing how the girl pleaded in vain to her parents to spare her was heartbreaking. Although the scene is horrible, many people enjoy watching this and other shows. We find tragedy pleasurable. Why is this? This question has puzzled philosophers and psychology for centuries. The tl;dr version of this blogpost is: tragedy is pleasurable because it helps us to become transported (absorbed) in a story, and transportation contributes to happiness, because it helps us avoid ruminating about our own situation.
Does a sad story make us really sad? Goldstein asked adults to compare their experiences watching a gloomy film to recalling an unhappy personal event. Adults experienced similar levels of sadness, but considerably less anxiety watching the movie compared to the recall of the unhappy memory. This may hold part of the solution to why sad stories have a different phenomenology: the sad events do not pertain to ourselves or our loved ones, and we know this. On the basis of this, Kendall Walton proposed that the emotions we experience when reading fiction are not bona fide emotions, but pretend emotions, and stories are props we use to engage in make-believe. This creates difficulties: in children’s games, the prop itself does not matter so much in creating the make-believe. A patch of leaves can be a castle, a stick a cannon. But for fiction, the artwork does make a great difference in whether or not we are moved. Some tragedies do not sadden, but lead to ridicule. They fail to move us. The question thus remains: if sad stories create a sense of sadness (albeit less anxiety), why do we enjoy them?
A key motivation for why people read or watch fiction is to be transported into the story. Transportation is a state where one is so absorbed by a story that the outside world and day-to-day concerns matter less. We're in a different place (a very good novel is a bit like Lucy walking in the wardrobe, and finding Narnia at the other side). There is convergent evidence (see here for a review) that transportation contributes to a sense of enjoyment, which is an important motivation for readers and viewers to engage in fiction. Negative reviews of movies or books frequently bemoan a lack of transportation (“I just couldn’t get into the story”), whereas positive reviews mention it (“The story gripped me from the beginning, and I couldn’t put the book down”). If transportation is indeed a desirable state, and if fiction can help to accomplish it, two questions arise: first, how does fiction result in transportation, and second, why does transportation contribute to happiness and wellbeing?
Question 1: How does fiction accomplish transportation?
Neuroscientific evidence suggests that fiction provides us with a sense of transportation by engaging our ability to project ourselves into the past, future, other people's situations. There is an integrated neural network that is involved in disparate tasks, including retrieving personal memories, predicting personal future events, attributing mental states. Intriguingly, the same network is also active when participants are in a conscious resting state, which is why it is often called the default mode network (see picture). One explanation why an integrated functional network could perform such seemingly diverse tasks as remembering, predicting, navigation, and theory of mind is the self-projection theory: we project ourselves into the past, the future, someone else's situation. Several neuroimaging studies indicate that narrative comprehension and production engages the default network. To appreciate fiction, we need to project ourselves into the social and environmental situation of the novel. One recent study found that two elements contribute to transportation, through increased engagement of the default mode network - social situations and vivid descriptions.
Question 2: Why does transportation contribute to happiness and wellbeing?
The reason why a sustained engagement of the default network contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness is that it counter rumination and other forms of self-reflection, which are also subserved by the default mode network. Several studies (meta-analysis here) show an overall negative effect of self-directed thought on wellbeing and affect: thinking about one’s past, future, or things one could have done differently (counterfactual thinking) on the whole result in lower happiness and increased anxiety, the only exception being when one thinks of oneself in a very positive light, following a positive life event (e.g., a promotion at work). On the whole, self-directed thought includes a lot of negative thinking, which even deliberate attempts to think positively about oneself cannot completely avoid.
There are several ways to counter excessive ruminating about one’s own situation. One of these is to engage in activities that induce flow, such as playing a musical instrument. Ulrich et al. found that flow experiences induced lower activity in the default network. This may explain why flow contributes to happiness and wellbeing. Another is to meditate: across different types of meditation, experienced meditators show a lower activation in the default network compared to control participants, which may explain why meditation contributes to wellbeing.
As we have seen, however, transportation in fiction results in an increase not a decrease in the default network. Yet transportation is also associated with greater happiness and wellbeing. One reason why transportation can achieve this is by directing the functional activities of the default network to the fictional world and its characters, away from one’s own situation and life. When we are absorbed in thinking counterfactually and theorizing about fictional characters (What if Madame Bovary hadn’t married the boring country doctor?), we cannot at the same time think about our own situation (What if I hadn’t married the boring country doctor?) In this way, transportation can make readers and watchers happier, as their attention is drawn away from negative self-directed ruminations. This explanation of the functional role of transportation also explains why emotions elicited through stories, including negative ones, contribute to a positive evaluation of artworks. Fiction that elicits greater emotions (e.g., sadness) achieve higher degrees of transportation, regardless of whether such emotions are negative or positive. For example, people who feel more involved in a sad story enjoy it more. So, to conclude, we enjoy being transported into stories, even if that transportation is achieved through, and sad events are more gripping, thus more transportative.