Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Piece of Fiction is a Piece of Consciousness– a conversation with Dr. Keith Oately

Share |
A Piece of Fiction is a Piece of Consciousness– a conversation with Dr. Keith Oately

This summer, I pestered Dr. Keith Oately. He’s a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, and the author of three novels and many works of non-fiction. He’s specialized in, among other things, what he describes as the psychology of emotions and the psychology of fiction, and I wanted to learn more about literature and empathy. I’ve had to write and rewrite this post several times. I wanted to include quotes, but I keep including an entire article and a half of another and most of a book. I have it on good authority that this is too much and that I’m being ridiculous. The material is mind blowing.

Dr. Oately wrote, in his book Such Stuff as Dreams, that fiction can be thought of a mechanism that creates a simulation. That makes sense to me. The protagonist is put into a world, into a set of circumstances, and we see what unfolds. It doesn’t have to be the truth. It’s a model of the true world. And we often discuss how well the model works. (In book reviews, we often discuss what’s authentic and inauthentic, how well the simulation matches what we think would happen in real life.) He’s studied what happens when we read, what happens to our brains and ourselves when we use the simulation.

There are many, many very interesting findings. I’m going to include only a few this time. Probably, I shouldn’t include all of it in a blog entry.

Here’s something. Scientists have imaged the brains of people putting in lightbulbs, and as they read about other people putting in a lightbulb. They found that the same regions were activated. This is unbelievable. We have lived experiences as we’re reading. The brain doesn’t differentiate all that much between real experiences and literary ones. This also means that we’re living someone else’s life as we’re reading. We’re right in there.

Scientists have also measured people’s personalities before and after reading an artistic work. They found that people changed! They changed themselves, not by the writer’s agenda, but in distinct and independent ways. Writers give us agency over our own lives and personalities.

I asked Dr. Oately how it all works, how words on a page can trigger empathy.
He wrote, “I wouldn’t put it that words on a page trigger empathy. I think it would be better to say that readers are invited by the author to enter situations that the characters are in, and then the readers can then feel emotions of the kind they would feel in these situations. So the readers metaphorically become the characters.”
I was also interested in whether he believes that readers can “lose themselves in fiction.” Can readers inhabit another consciousness?

He wrote, “A piece of fiction is a piece of consciousness. We can take it in and make it our own. And a writer can put it out there, and give it to someone else.

“Some writers want their readers to feel emotions, for instance a horror story writer wants his or her readers to feel horror. I don’t think this is the basis of art. In art, I think, a writer enables a reader to experience his or her own emotions.”

Such Stuff as Dreams is life changing. In the real world, I try very hard to be conscientious. I don’t always succeed, but I do try to think about the effect that I have on others. I don’t know that I’m as conscientious when I’m writing. How often do I think about how my readers will react to my writing, what, specifically, they might be going through as they read? I’m going to try to do this more. I’m creating a world and inviting them in. I want to be a better host. [I don’t know whether I should admit this, but I will – reading this book changed my writing. I’ve added a lot more physical activity to the novel I’m currently working on. I want to give my readers a workout. I don’t really know why, but it felt important to do.]

I also love Dr. Oately’s response, that a piece of fiction is a consciousness. I want the consciousness that I create to be compassionate, maybe not all the characters in it, but as a world, as a whole. I highly recommend this book. I highly recommend his novels too.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page