I’ve been giving some thought as to whether engagement with fiction isn’t more easily triggered by movies and TV shows than by texts.
People are embodied: they confront the world from a particular physical locus within the world. Each of us sees the world literally from a particular point of view; i.e., from the vantage point afforded by our eyes, which swivel and focus on the world from atop a moving platform. So too with sound: we hear the world via the sounds that our ears pick up. Cameras and microphones provide a much closer simulation to the subjective experience of being-in-the-world than do written words describing sights and sounds.
Empathy, perspective-taking, simulation: these are some of the means by which humans understand one another’s points of view. Humans encounter other humans not as disembodied minds or emotions but through embodied physical encounters with other embodied beings more or less like themselves, through touching their bodies, looking at their faces, watching their actions, jointly participating with them in the world.
And through hearing what they have to say. The species continued to evolve genetically even after spoken/aural language began to emerge as a human capability, so the nearly irresistible aptitude for becoming adept users of the cultural artifact that is spoken language is built into the genes. Young children acquire language competence in the context of interpersonal encounters, specifically those types of encounters characterized by joint attention to and engagement with some aspect of the world. Being able to understand what someone else has to say requires the ability to infer the speaker’s intent to communicate, as well as the ability to adopt the speaker’s point of view. Language acquisition thus depends on an already-developed capacity for interpreting others’ facial expressions, gestures and intentions, as well as on the intrinsic motivation and capacity for imitating them. Empirical research demonstrates that these proto-linguistic human capabilities rely on innate neural capabilities that gradually become honed through repeated direct experiences with other language-users as together they explore the shared physical environment. This fine-tuning of a child’s innate ability to participate in a linguistic interpersonal environment develops instinctively, unconsciously, outside of self-awareness. Again, the characters who walk and talk in the world projected onto the movie or television screen present a reasonable simulation of this real-world linguistic environment. So it seems likely that on-screen dialogue spontaneously triggers in the listener those same unconscious empathic and role-taking connections with the speakers that occur in real-world conversation.
Written language is a cultural artifact that appeared very late on the prehistorical scene — too recently to have affected the human genome. It’s not universal: many cultures never developed a written form of their language, even though people born and raised in those cultures possess the intellectual capabilities required for developing competence in reading and writing. Even in cultures with rich and deep textual traditions, kids always become quite fluent with spoken language before they acquire even the rudiments of written language. Reading and writing are skills more like riding a bike than like understanding spoken language. These skills are built on a scaffolding that’s innate, and once honed through repeated practice the skills become second nature. However, learning them in the first place demands conscious attention.
Back to fiction. On screen we watch people doing things in an environment, formulating and pursuing intentions in a world, scheming and fighting and fucking and talking with each other. Let’s presume that our engagement with fiction depends on triggering our abilities, genetically transmitted and honed through interpersonal experience, to empathize with and to simulate other people as they engage intentionally in the physical and interpersonal environment. The on-screen bodies and faces and actions and voices aren’t physically there in a material world you share with these characters, but you do watch them with your eyes and hear them with your ears. They are closer to embodied beings than are characters who appear in fictional texts, characters whose physical appearances are not seen but described, whose actions are not watched but recounted, whose dialogue is not heard but read.
Since texts did not comprise part of the evolutionary environment, and since the ability to read depends on conscious attention, it seems likely the reader’s engagement with fictional characters rendered in textual form is less instinctive than it is with characters in movies and TV shows. As a simulation, on-screen activity certainly lacks the physical tangibility of our real-life engagements with people in the world. Still, on-screen fiction offers a much closer approximation to material reality than does written fiction — a visual and aural simulation that is arguably more likely to trigger our unconscious visceral engagement with unreal other people in an unreal world.