Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: We Need Fiction To Deal With Life’s Facts and Feelings

We never grow tired of loving and needing the fiction we find in books and movies. As children we beg for one more book before we give over to sleep or ask to hear the favorite, over and over again. As adults we continue to trade in sleep to finish the chapter, see the end of the show, binge watch the series or re-watch favorites on a host of devices. Why?

We love fiction and we need fiction. We learn from fiction, we upload our imaginations to access fiction, we feel our way through fiction, we connect and we find ourselves and others through fiction.

What is it about fiction that makes this possible?

Why do we hold on to fiction in a way that we never remember facts?

Fiction transports us.

We engage with fiction. We suspend vigilance to inaccuracies, reason, time and place. We project on to the villains and we identify with the heroes. We experience vicarious love, pleasure, power, hate, fear, and suffering, etc. We are moved emotionally and neurophysiologically.

Psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Their studies show that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. 

They propose that when we are highly absorbed in the story, we barely detect “ the false notes” or inaccuracies. It is not a matter of ignoring the false notes—We don’t even see them!

 Fiction connects us.

Whether it is the story you are reading to your child or the movie you are watching with hundreds in a theater, the experience of laughing, screaming or crying together connects us to others. Even if we watch separately, the fiction in books and films become part of our shared experience.

Movie titles, characters and dialogue evoke certain meanings, become part of the culture and are used in our daily lives long after a film is seen.

We know what it means to hear someone say:

  • “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars, 1977)
  • “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” (The Godfather, 1972)
  • “I’ll be back.” (The Terminator, 1984)
  • “You had me at hello.” (Jerry Maguire, 1996)

Fiction enhances empathy and feelings

Fiction triggers empathy emotionally and by stimulating our neurochemistry through mirror neurons.

  • When we are driving a racing car, neurons in our brain fire. When we watch James Bond drive a racing car, a subset of those same neurons also fire giving us the virtual reality experience of driving.
  • In terms of emotional or affective experience, if someone wounds me or steals my child, a set of neurons (anterior cingulate neurons) register pain and anguish in my brain. If you witness my pain a subset of mirror neurons will fire in your brain putting you in empathy with my pain i.e. registering that this is what you would feel if wounded or tortured in the same way.
  • As such fiction invites us to see and experience the world in other people’s eyes. From the earliest days, childhood movies and books put us into the pain, joy or dilemma of another. There is a reason that Bambi is one of the most upsetting Disney movies.
  • Ninety-four percent of us cry together as watch the final scenes of the Titanic (the most viewed film).
  • Sophie’s Choice as a novel and as a film reveals a choice most of us cannot fathom. There is the urge to resist being placed so close to the horror and grief of choosing which of your children must die.

Fiction validates life experiences

Fiction allows us to know we are not alone in our feelings and thoughts. Many have embraced the reality that they are not the only one in a dysfunctional family thanks to films like “ Christmas Vacation” “ Home for the Holidays” and “ Little Miss Sunshine”  When in public, they have heard someone in their family say , “ Try to be normal.”

Fiction offers escape

Fiction fulfills the request, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” It allows us to escape from our world to the worlds of fantasy and magical thinking. In The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Hobbit, we enter worlds of shared imagination that are very different and far from our day-to-day lives.

Fiction allows justice to prevail

Many films and books provide the justice and moral reckoning we crave but can’t guarantee in life. We believed in the decision of Twelve Angry Men. We never tire of police shows that solve the case. We embrace Mission Impossible because many days in our lives feel like a “Mission Impossible”. We have needed James Bond, Code Name 007, since he arrived in the 1953 novel, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.

Fiction inspires

We are moved to be all that we can be with films like Rocky, Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List and a Beautiful Mind. We are inspired by the mix of love, friendship and mortality shared in the words and pictures of children’s books like Charlotte’s Web by EB White (1952).

Fiction facilitates healing

Fiction allows us to revisit unspeakable and traumatic events at a distance. It interrupts the code of silence and the symptom of avoidance so common to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It allows small, safe, visual and emotional steps to re-experience, find the words and integrate the unthinkable – tragic death, child abuse, and war etc. Films like Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Mystic River etc., evoke feelings and bear witness in important ways.

Fiction takes us into the experiences, feelings and thoughts of people we don’t know, fear, or stereotype.

A study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, explored the specific impacts of reading Harry Potter books. It found that children, high school and university students reading Harry Potter had improved attitudes towards stigmatized groups.

A number of fictional shows have helped shape America’s attitudes about gay relationships-Will and Grace, Modern Family, Roseanne, Friends, etc.

Films like Twelve Years a Slave, The Help and Remember the Titans raise consciousness about the horror of slavery and racism and offer a glimpse of hope in the actions of young people using a sport to connect.

Fiction addresses our fear of death and destruction

These days we spend a lot of time in Post-Apocalyptic Neighborhoods dealing with The Walking Dead, Zombies, Leftovers, and more. One hypothesis is that this is actually a counterphobic solution to what terrifies us–which means we are so anxious about death, we can’t stop dealing with it, denying it, rounding up other survivors or watching it in fiction.

Some report enjoying this fiction. They find the characters, the plot, and story interesting and entertaining. I believe it is true-there are a number of fans in my family.

Years ago one of my patients reported that when he was depressed, horror movies shifted his mood and always made him feel better!

Fiction Fits

As much as some love The Terminator others, others love The Danish Girl, The Good the Bad and the Ugly or When Harry Met Sally.

There is a story for everyone because we are part of the stories we need and love.

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American Proverb

Listen in to Podcast on Psych Up Live to hear an Insider Look with Dr. Serani of her Suspense Novel, “ The Ninth Session”