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When psychologist and author Keith Oatley writes his next novel, he can make sure that each description of a scene includes three key elements – to better help the reader create a vivid mental image. Not one element; that would be forgettable. Not six elements; that might be boring.

He could have learned this from Anton Chekhov, master of the short story. Oatley, a great admirer of the Russian writer, recalls one Chekhov story that includes a description of a pond under snow. With a factory. Across from a village.

In fact, Oatley learned the lesson from a study that used MRI scans to show brain activity in readers: The area of the brain used to create a mental image was best activated when descriptive passages used three elements.

Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, is also the author of three novels, including The Case of Emily V. which won the Commonwealth Prize in 1994, but his most recent work combines the two fields. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction is part of a growing movement to find hard evidence for a soft pursuit, looking to various sciences to explain the power of fiction. Contrary to the notion that art merely copies life, Oatley's argument is that a movie, play, story, poem or novel creates a mental model in which readers can try out ideas about themselves and others.

"If you say fiction to anybody, they immediately say 'Oh, something that has been made up.' … What you really want to know is what is the subject matter of fiction," he said. "The subject matter of fiction is what people are up to with each other and within themselves, what it is to be a self, interacting with others in the social world. … If you want to read about genetics you read [Richard]Dawkins or someone, and you get good at understanding genetics. If you read fiction, what you get good at understanding is what goes on between people."

Oatley and his several colleagues are actually trying to measure that knowledge. In one study, they used a test in which subjects are asked to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person's eyes, a measure of empathy developed by the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who studies autism. Fiction readers scored higher, even when the psychologists subtracted out influences that might suggest the more empathetic people would tend to read more fiction.

To further test that empathy is a product of reading fiction rather than the reverse, York University psychologist Raymond Mar experimented with two groups of randomly selected subjects, one of which read a short story and the other a piece of non-fiction. He then subjected them to a test of social reasoning and found the short-story group performed better.

Oatley would like to repeat such a study with a much larger group over a longer time period, perhaps signing up subjects who would agree to read only fiction or non-fiction for a year.

In another study, Oatley's UofT colleague Maja Djikic rewrote the Chekhov short story The Lady with the Little Dog as a piece of non-fiction, as though this story of an illicit love affair were the transcript of a trial. When asked to perform standard personality tests, subjects who had read the real thing instead of her rewrite showed more signs of shifts in character traits. And the more emotions they reported feeling during their reading, the more they changed. There was no particular direction to these shifts in personality: If propaganda, rhetoric or marketing aims to push the reader one way, fiction simply opens up the possibility of movement.

"It is not that one puts bread into a toaster and it makes toast," Oatley said. "It is an opportunity for the reader or the movie watcher to change. It's not a straight causal effect."

Stressing the studies are preliminary, he speculates the personality shifts may be produced by the reader entering into the fictional character's mind.

He uses the metaphor of a flight simulator to explain fiction's role in our lives: Just as the flight simulator allows the pilot-in-training to quickly and safely encounter all sorts of contingencies that might happen in the air, so fiction allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful example of the simulator effect. In the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy, both of them intelligent and proud, initially misread each other, but gradually come to an understanding of one another's minds that will then grow into love. Oatley points out that the reader undergoes a similar process, coming to know and love the characters as Austen unfolds their story, thus experiencing the same dawning understanding and growing attachment.

"That is a beautiful structure," he said.

This function also explains why reading groups are popular, and in Oatley's scheme, very important: They take the emotional training and multiply the effect.

"When you read the book yourself you have a particular understanding, but it is always very partial, so the moment you start talking with someone else about it, you are increasing the amount of brain power and coming at if from all these different directions," Oatley said. He has participated in the same book club for 20 years and finds its discussions often deepen his understanding not just of the book, but also of his friends in the group.

So, a book club improves what psychologists call "theory of mind." Acquired around the age of five, theory of mind is our awareness of our own and others' consciousness – and of the possibility they may believe something different from us.

U.S. English professor Lisa Zunshine was one of the first to suggest fiction trains us in theory of mind. Similarly, U.S. philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that fiction teaches empathy, and so should be required reading for public leaders.

Following that work, Oatley's cognitive approach is part of a trend toward seeking concrete explanations for literature's utility both inside and outside the English department. The so-called literary Darwinists see evolutionary purposes behind a kind of mental training that is crucial to living in groups, and argue that storytelling has evolved as an art form because of the prestige that accrues to the socially necessary storyteller.

The evolutionary theorists put great emphasis on the storyteller; Oatley prefers to give pride of place to the reader. But both schools do permit their practitioners to judge the writer's art, even as some literary critics complain these new approaches are reductionist. Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar from New Zealand, subjects The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who to evolutionary criticism in his recent book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. He shows how the master storyteller holds his audience's attention and draws it toward particular aspects of his tale: Through the sympathetic Horton, Dr. Seuss makes us feel for the plight of the microscopic Whos.

For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

"You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person," he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, "Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader]can really inhabit another mind."

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.

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