Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Mad science: "You know that she is in a movie in which sharks eat people; she thinks that she is living a normal life."

Paul Bloom, Yale psych professor, has an extensive and excellent article about the pleasures of the imagination posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education. Bloom discusses the role of imagination and focuses on those liminal experiences that seem to hold over both real and fictional stimulation. The whole article is worth your time, but I pull out a little extract here because it discusses the first kill in Jaws, a horrifying scene I recently wrote up as an unofficial entry in Arbogast's "One I Would Save" blog series.

Here's Bloom on the role of empathy death of Chrissie Watkins:

Often we experience ourselves as the agent, the main character, of an imaginary event. To use a term favored by psychologists who work in this area, we get transported. This is how daydreams and fantasies typically work; you imagine winning the prize, not watching yourself winning the prize. Certain video games work this way as well: They establish the illusion of running around shooting aliens, or doing tricks on a skateboard, through visual stimulation that fools a part of you into thinking—or alieving—that you, yourself, are moving through space.

For stories, though, you have access to information that the character lacks. The philosopher Noël Carroll gives the example of the opening scene in Jaws. You can't be merely taking the teenager's perspective as she swims in the dark, because she is cheerful, and you are terrified. You know things that she doesn't. You hear the famous, ominous music; she doesn't. You know that she is in a movie in which sharks eat people; she thinks that she is living a normal life.

This is how empathy works in real life. You would feel the same way seeing someone happily swim while a shark approaches her. In both fiction and reality, then, you simultaneously make sense of the situation from both the character's perspective and from your own.


Sasquatchan said...

So how does he feel about slasher movies with the canonical "don't go in/though that door, girl" type of moments ?

CRwM said...

That would seem to be at least somewhat of a match to the shark issue: We know that the characters are moving through a formula that will grind most of them up, but we assume the characters just think they're drinking and baggin' pelt at a summer camp.