This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/
and the end of this newsletter.
The Role of Fiction in
Cognitive Development and Maintenance
The past several articles have focused at least partly on memory, and
how we use our biological and technological memories to help resolve
current challenges. But what if we don’t have useful memories to guide
our resolution? This article will focus on an intriguing technique that
humans developed for such situations, and the next article will focus
on resolving technological and educational issues that emerge out of
We continually make conscious and subconscious decisions that affect
our general welfare. When making decisions, we confront such
psychological dualities as true-false, right-wrong, fair-unfair,
moral-immoral, ethical-unethical, and friendly-unfriendly. We tend to
consider one of the two terms to be positive and the other negative,
but perhaps it isn’t that simple. Let’s explore the issue with the
concepts of fact-fiction.
Fact and Fiction
One of the major curiosities about humans is the great amount of time
and energy we spend in creating, relaying, and attending to stories
that both the storyteller and recipients know are false. It makes
survival sense to share true information, but fictional narrative seems
intellectually and culturally pointless.
And yet, fiction has been a dominant force in all cultures—from short
jokes and parables to extended novels and various dramatic forms. We
often add illustrations, gestures, music, and dance to enhance a
story’s emotional impact and narrative flow. In marketing, these
elements are often used to deceive. Does a day ever go by in which
fictional narrative is absent from our life?
And as if daytime fiction isn’t enough, our two hours of nighttime
dreaming often include strange and disjointed narratives that are
untrammeled by space and time realities—dream stories that our brain
creates and tells to itself.
More curious, even though children have much factual information to
master, their enculturation is replete with made-up stories—from fables
to fairy tales, from Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny. Children can
learn much about the world from true narratives, but what can they
possibly learn from fiction?
The emerging answer is that fictional narrative plays a central role in
the juvenile development and adult maintenance of important cognitive
processes. Brian Boyd’s thought provoking On the Origin of Stories:
Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
(2009) is an excellent example
imaginative explorations that seek to explain such longstanding enigmas
of human thought and behavior.
Boyd considers fiction to be an important art form, and the arts to be
a major playful venue for developing and maintaining human cognition,
cooperation, and creativity. Fictional narrative incorporates all three
of these key elements. We have a brain that can deal with ambiguity;
we’re a social species; and we continually confront novel challenges.
Space and Time Limitations
Human consciousness allows us to intelligently contemplate and then
explore the here and there of space. Our finite sensorimotor system
limits the extent of such explorations, but our curiosity and
imagination are boundless. We thus added technology to speculation, and
so populated the earth, explored the universe, peered inside our
cellular and molecular bases—and even added a genre called science
fiction to further extend our imagination.
Time creates a similar exploratory challenge with then, now, and later.
We have a memory of the past; we can observe the present; but we can
only speculate about and try to shape the future—and then we have to
wait to see how it turns out.
Moreover, we often don’t know important details of past events. Time
travel in science fiction allows us to speculate on omissions and
alternative possibilities. For example, what if George Washington’s
boat had sunk and he drowned while crossing the Delaware River on
December 25, 1776? That supposition could be the basis for an
alternative history novel.
As indicated in previous articles, intelligence is an elusive concept.
Hawkins (2004) defines intelligence as the ability to rapidly and
correctly predict what will occur on the basis of how currently
perceived events relate to prior experience. Intelligent prediction is
dependent on our ability to successfully function beyond the here and
now by identifying related recurring space/time patterns.
But what if we don’t have prior experiences that are similar to the
current challenge? This is certainly the case with children, who have a
very limited experiential background.
Our brain’s solution is to simply use its pattern-recognition ability
to search for reasonable connections between current and previous
spatial and temporal challenges—including stored patterns that came
from fiction and other dubious sources.
Analogy and metaphor emerged out of this pattern matching capability.
As our brain’s highly interconnected conceptual networks seek matches
between what’s currently perceived and what we’ve experienced, they
often activate concepts and specific objects/events that aren’t a
perfect match, but are close enough to be useful.
Early humans could only speculate about the cause of such significant
natural events as storms, seasons, and illness. Deities emerged as a
convenient anthropomorphic explanation for many such mysteries (e.g.,
the gods are angry). Expanded narratives made the explanations
understandable and acceptable until a better explanation emerged.
An explanation thus doesn’t have to be true to be cognitively and
culturally useful. Storytellers emerged as important cultural resources
because they could imagine plausible explanations for mysterious
A good story or virtual reality in a computer simulation can
emotionally arouse our brain and focus its attention at the same level
as a real life challenge. We thus don’t have to physically experience
something to understand it. We can mentally experience it with the
author, imagine an appropriate metaphoric resolution, and insert that
into our memory for later use if needed.
This capability is especially helpful with potentially dangerous
challenges, or with challenges that involve complex personal
relationships. Most fictional narratives thus focus on difficult
challenges rather than on simple problems that are relatively easy to
understand and resolve. We tend to seek out fictional narratives that
provide credible resolutions of personally significant issues and
Although fiction creates imaginary events, it often includes a lot of
obscure factual information that’s inserted to bolster the credibility
of the speculations. The reader thinks: ‘An author who knows that much
about the setting of the story is probably also correct about the
Dan Brown’s widely read and discussed The
Da Vinci Code
(2003) and his
latest book, The Lost Symbol
(2009) are good examples of this
phenomenon. The books are full of obscure facts that probably wouldn’t
interest most people outside of the context of the book. For example,
The Lost Symbol
rich factual base of Masonic lore,
Washington DC government buildings, famous art objects, and new
developments in surveillance technology. The facts help move the story,
but they don’t in themselves turn a fictional speculation about a
conspiracy into fact.
Further, like all good storytellers, Brown knows that attention, a key
cognitive system, is tuned to the unexpected, so his novels are full of
plot twists and turns to help maintain the reader’s attention over 500+
Prophetic literary devices such as science fiction have always had a
strong appeal, because they shift our focus from what is to what could
be—and into an environment that we can currently only imagine. They
thus have led to various creative cultural developments and to
inventions that resolved problems that didn’t have a current useful
Fictional absurdity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdist_fiction
similarly creates a complex situation that has no connection to current
reality. Our pattern seeking brain will, however, automatically seek to
locate a coherent pattern. This added effort in a complex challenge can
prime our brain to function more efficiently in the identification of
patterns in other more relevant settings (Proulx, 2009).
We’ve become a global village, and this has forced us to try to
understand and resolve problems that are spatially and/or temporally
distant from our actual experience. We couldn’t do it without the
electronic technologies now available to us. Still, children continue
to enjoy the simple human stories that accompany growing up in a family
and the local cultural environment.
The stories we learned during childhood may thus provide the base for
many of our adult beliefs and decisions. They may even become so deeply
engrained that we reject credible new discoveries that differ from the
powerful beliefs that emerged earlier via fictional narrative.
Fictional narrative is thus a useful technique that our brain uses as
it moves from curiosity to discovery. The film Avatar
superior power of current computer technology to go beyond the verbal
narrative of life on a fictional planet to create a credible visual
(but non-existent) environment that enhances the story.
Educational Implications and Recommendations
The concept of fiction thus has obviously important current educational
implications. Dramatic advances in electronic communication
technologies have made it easy for anyone to publish anything, with no
assurance for readers that the information is true. Stereotyping and
bigotry continue as a serious cultural issue. Political polarity is
increasing. Governmental and corporate deceit reduces confidence.
Photoshop has even made photography suspect.
The next issue will explore such issues, and suggest how educators can
help students separate truth from destructive fiction.
Boyd, B. (2009) On
the origin of stories: Evolution,
cognition, and fiction. Cambridge MA: Harvard.
Brown, D. (2003) The
da Vinci code
. New York:
Brown, D. (2009) The
lost symbol. New York:
Hawkins, J. (2004). On intelligence: How a new
understanding of the brain will lead to the creation to truly
intelligent machines. New York: Henry Holt.
Proulx, T. and Heine, J. (July 29, 2009).
Connections From Kafka:
Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial
Grammar. Psychological Science.
Retrieved 3/1/2010 from http://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~heine/docs/Kafkagrammar.pdf&ei=63WYS8jFC5DCsgPnnbXCAQ&sa=X&oi=unauthorizedredirect&ct=targetlink&ust=1268284659192173&usg=AFQjCNFD-fr3eHKtSuE69vze1mZ4xDeOUw
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE
is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology
museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki
with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter
you are now reading.
To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back
issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the
“Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.