July 18, 2013

The world’s cheapest vacation: a “prose portal”



Ever wondered why you fall into some books more easily than others? Well, wonder no more: science worked it all out. Jim Davies of Nautilus wrote a short article about the way we are “transported” through reading. He focuses on why we can fall into stories or films we know are not true (that is to say, fiction).

Melanie Green and Timothy Brock of The Ohio State University studied the way readers engaged with their reading, measuring with a “transportation scale.” Readers were asked yes or no questions, like “I could easily picture the events taking place.” A favorable evaluation of the protagonist or agreement that the story changed readers’ beliefs about the world tended to correlate with higher ratings on the transportation scale.

In a previous post, Davies added that readers entered a “prose portal” more quickly when the setting was familiar, or when the weather in the story aligned with reality. That explains why so many books are published this season with bare feet on the cover, or pictures of picturesque places you could never visit in real life.

Davies divides our belief in a story into two parts of the brain, the “lizard brain” (located on the top of the brain stem) and the new parts of the brain (around the old parts and in the front).

The older parts of the brain evolved to see things, detect predators, manage emotions, and other, older cognitive skills. The newer parts of the brain are capable of reasoning and reflection. What this means is that only the newer parts (specifically the frontal lobes) “know” that what you’re reading is fiction. The older parts of the brain have trouble distinguishing real from fictional faces, and even true from false sentences!

It’s a short post, so Davies doesn’t delve much deeper into the paradox of fiction. He concludes we tend to believe anything by default, unless we have reasonable doubt about the source. “Our tendency to believe things by default has been supported by laboratory studies,” he writes without elaborating. “In Green and Brock’s experiments, people would even often forget if the story they read was truth or fiction.”

Which is terrifying, and should make you glad to have evolved beyond the lizard-stage. But in conclusion, science says reading about hot weather and bright places should transport you more quickly around this time of year. You like your summer reading to be set in the summertime, and you also like to pretend that you’re the protagonist who’s traipsing around in exotic places having a nice time.

If you do get to do your summer reading at a vacation destination, we are jealous, and also we humbly ask that you refrain from burying your book in the sand or bringing it into the water with you.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.