This is your brain on fiction

My three and a half year old daughter is obsessed with astronauts.  She spent more than two hours yesterday playing with her toy astronauts:  having the moon rover wheel over to the lunar lander for some banana milkshakes whipped up by Ham the space chimp, giving them a lecture about how to fix a satellite, trekking to see the “space cat” who had camped out in her sofa cushion space ship, and even putting on a ballet recital for them.

She has already seen one astronaut movie in the theaters – the IMAX movie “Hubble” – and she was very excited to be going to the planetarium for their full dome showing of a short film simply titled, “Astronaut.

I was a bit skeptical – she had clung to me like a baby orangutan through most of the showing of “Heart of the Sun” yesterday (which we ended up seeing because I had gotten us to the theater a bit too late for “Astronaut”), complaining that it was too loud.

I was delighted with the opening sequence, in which we were swept through an astronaut’s brain, bloodstream, heart, and lungs.  And while I was nervous that the lack of a frame of reference and the simulated speed would be unsettling for her, she seemed fine, leaning comfortably back into me and tracking the action with rapt attention.  Then, as they pulled back to a picture of the astronaut coming out of an airlock into the cargo bay for a space walk, her awestruck voice was heard through the quiet theater, “Look, Mommy, the space shuttle!”

Things were going along swimmingly, even as they spun us more and more rapidly around the human centrifuge trainer.  What set her off was not the speed, or the darkness, or the sound, or the loss of her usual frames of reference:  what finally led to her turning into a quivering mass of frantically whispered, “I want to go RIGHT NOW!” was the abuse heaped on “Chad” – an goofy animated test subject demonstrating all of the things that could happen to an astronaut if they were not wearing their spacesuit outside of the craft.  The fact that there were about 8 identical Chads was a bit cognitively disturbing to myself.  But the abuse didn’t faze me – I knew that he was just a drawing, and have become a bit desensitized to cartoon violence, thanks to Chuck Jones, et. al.  For my daughter, however, Chad really was unable to breathe, or floating away untethered, or crushed by space debris.  When Chad was finally turned to a solid block of ice, she had had enough.

Later, she wanted to know why the astronaut kept getting hurt.  I tried to explain that he was not really real, but just a drawing – that he couldn’t really be hurt – just like her doll isn’t really hurt when she is bonked into the window blinds.  (Somehow, the comedic value of that particular action is limitless these days.)  But that was not good enough for my daughter – she wanted to know why they would want to show us a drawing getting hurt over and over.  “So we’ll know why spacesuits are important,” I began to say, “So that we know why astronauts must always wear their suits outside of the spaceship.”

“But if they always do, why do we need to know what will happen if they don’t?” she replied.

I still see the value of the lesson, but clearly the movie was not the right match for her at this developmental stage – we are going to have to wait until she really understands the difference between fact and fiction, between what is real and what is not.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder to what extent any of us ever reach this stage.  Us “grown-ups” keep watching serial dramas and comedies because we become invested in the characters. Certain scenes and images haunt us even though we know that they were made up – even though we went to see the movie simply to be entertained.  (Which reminds me, I would advise you to avoid The Pillow Book, unless you find yourself in need of a memory that makes you physically nauseated every time it comes to mind.  Actually, I might extend that warning to all Peter Greenaway films in general.)

Fiction calls for us to suspend our disbelief, something that humans are frighteningly good at (some of us more than others!) But when we do that, when we allow action and character to unfold “as if” it were true, then we are also (often unwittingly) absorbing the author’s world view.  For instance, in order to get a few pages into The Time Traveler’s Wife, we have to grant the device of time travel.  But do we not similarly and unthinkingly grant the author’s views about romantic love, and if so, why?  Who certified Audrey Niffenegger as a love expert?

Authors and directors are not reporting something that did happen – they are describing what is possible in their own mind.  And our own minds are a great deal more limited than the universe.  To quote one man of great imagination, “There are more things in Heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”

So – it is not just my daughter who is susceptible to getting drawn into a fictional world.  I myself am trying to discipline myself not to suspend my belief in a loved and redeemed creation when I read or watch or listen to the creations of human creatures these days.  Instead, I am learning to observe with a bit of skepticism – to ask – does this diverge from the world I know, and how?

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