Information Age Education
   Issue Number 37
March, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

The Role of Fiction in Cognitive Development and Maintenance

The past several articles have focused at least partly on memory, and how we use our biological and technological memories to help resolve current challenges. But what if we don’t have useful memories to guide our resolution? This article will focus on an intriguing technique that humans developed for such situations, and the next article will focus on resolving technological and educational issues that emerge out of this technique.

Psychological Dualities

We continually make conscious and subconscious decisions that affect our general welfare. When making decisions, we confront such psychological dualities as true-false, right-wrong, fair-unfair, moral-immoral, ethical-unethical, and friendly-unfriendly. We tend to consider one of the two terms to be positive and the other negative, but perhaps it isn’t that simple. Let’s explore the issue with the concepts of fact-fiction.

Fact and Fiction

One of the major curiosities about humans is the great amount of time and energy we spend in creating, relaying, and attending to stories that both the storyteller and recipients know are false. It makes survival sense to share true information, but fictional narrative seems intellectually and culturally pointless.

And yet, fiction has been a dominant force in all cultures—from short jokes and parables to extended novels and various dramatic forms. We often add illustrations, gestures, music, and dance to enhance a story’s emotional impact and narrative flow. In marketing, these elements are often used to deceive. Does a day ever go by in which fictional narrative is absent from our life?

And as if daytime fiction isn’t enough, our two hours of nighttime dreaming often include strange and disjointed narratives that are untrammeled by space and time realities—dream stories that our brain creates and tells to itself.

More curious, even though children have much factual information to master, their enculturation is replete with made-up stories—from fables to fairy tales, from Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny. Children can learn much about the world from true narratives, but what can they possibly learn from fiction?

The emerging answer is that fictional narrative plays a central role in the juvenile development and adult maintenance of important cognitive processes. Brian Boyd’s thought provoking On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009) is an excellent example of imaginative explorations that seek to explain such longstanding enigmas of human thought and behavior.

Boyd considers fiction to be an important art form, and the arts to be a major playful venue for developing and maintaining human cognition, cooperation, and creativity. Fictional narrative incorporates all three of these key elements. We have a brain that can deal with ambiguity; we’re a social species; and we continually confront novel challenges.

Space and Time Limitations

Human consciousness allows us to intelligently contemplate and then explore the here and there of space. Our finite sensorimotor system limits the extent of such explorations, but our curiosity and imagination are boundless. We thus added technology to speculation, and so populated the earth, explored the universe, peered inside our cellular and molecular bases—and even added a genre called science fiction to further extend our imagination.

Time creates a similar exploratory challenge with then, now, and later. We have a memory of the past; we can observe the present; but we can only speculate about and try to shape the future—and then we have to wait to see how it turns out.

Moreover, we often don’t know important details of past events. Time travel in science fiction allows us to speculate on omissions and alternative possibilities. For example, what if George Washington’s boat had sunk and he drowned while crossing the Delaware River on December 25, 1776? That supposition could be the basis for an alternative history novel.

As indicated in previous articles, intelligence is an elusive concept. Hawkins (2004) defines intelligence as the ability to rapidly and correctly predict what will occur on the basis of how currently perceived events relate to prior experience. Intelligent prediction is dependent on our ability to successfully function beyond the here and now by identifying related recurring space/time patterns.

Novel Challenges

But what if we don’t have prior experiences that are similar to the current challenge? This is certainly the case with children, who have a very limited experiential background.

Our brain’s solution is to simply use its pattern-recognition ability to search for reasonable connections between current and previous spatial and temporal challenges—including stored patterns that came from fiction and other dubious sources.

Analogy and metaphor emerged out of this pattern matching capability. As our brain’s highly interconnected conceptual networks seek matches between what’s currently perceived and what we’ve experienced, they often activate concepts and specific objects/events that aren’t a perfect match, but are close enough to be useful.

Early humans could only speculate about the cause of such significant natural events as storms, seasons, and illness. Deities emerged as a convenient anthropomorphic explanation for many such mysteries (e.g., the gods are angry). Expanded narratives made the explanations understandable and acceptable until a better explanation emerged.

An explanation thus doesn’t have to be true to be cognitively and culturally useful. Storytellers emerged as important cultural resources because they could imagine plausible explanations for mysterious phenomena.

A good story or virtual reality in a computer simulation can emotionally arouse our brain and focus its attention at the same level as a real life challenge. We thus don’t have to physically experience something to understand it. We can mentally experience it with the author, imagine an appropriate metaphoric resolution, and insert that into our memory for later use if needed.

This capability is especially helpful with potentially dangerous challenges, or with challenges that involve complex personal relationships. Most fictional narratives thus focus on difficult challenges rather than on simple problems that are relatively easy to understand and resolve. We tend to seek out fictional narratives that provide credible resolutions of personally significant issues and relationships.

Although fiction creates imaginary events, it often includes a lot of obscure factual information that’s inserted to bolster the credibility of the speculations. The reader thinks: ‘An author who knows that much about the setting of the story is probably also correct about the speculative elements.’

Dan Brown’s widely read and discussed The Da Vinci Code (2003) and his latest book, The Lost Symbol (2009) are good examples of this phenomenon. The books are full of obscure facts that probably wouldn’t interest most people outside of the context of the book. For example, The Lost Symbol provides a rich factual base of Masonic lore, Washington DC government buildings, famous art objects, and new developments in surveillance technology. The facts help move the story, but they don’t in themselves turn a fictional speculation about a conspiracy into fact.

Further, like all good storytellers, Brown knows that attention, a key cognitive system, is tuned to the unexpected, so his novels are full of plot twists and turns to help maintain the reader’s attention over 500+ pages.

Prophetic literary devices such as science fiction have always had a strong appeal, because they shift our focus from what is to what could be—and into an environment that we can currently only imagine. They thus have led to various creative cultural developments and to inventions that resolved problems that didn’t have a current useful solution.

Fictional absurdity ( similarly creates a complex situation that has no connection to current reality. Our pattern seeking brain will, however, automatically seek to locate a coherent pattern. This added effort in a complex challenge can prime our brain to function more efficiently in the identification of patterns in other more relevant settings (Proulx, 2009).

We’ve become a global village, and this has forced us to try to understand and resolve problems that are spatially and/or temporally distant from our actual experience. We couldn’t do it without the electronic technologies now available to us. Still, children continue to enjoy the simple human stories that accompany growing up in a family and the local cultural environment.

The stories we learned during childhood may thus provide the base for many of our adult beliefs and decisions. They may even become so deeply engrained that we reject credible new discoveries that differ from the powerful beliefs that emerged earlier via fictional narrative.

Fictional narrative is thus a useful technique that our brain uses as it moves from curiosity to discovery. The film Avatar exemplifies the superior power of current computer technology to go beyond the verbal narrative of life on a fictional planet to create a credible visual (but non-existent) environment that enhances the story.

Educational Implications and Recommendations

The concept of fiction thus has obviously important current educational implications. Dramatic advances in electronic communication technologies have made it easy for anyone to publish anything, with no assurance for readers that the information is true. Stereotyping and bigotry continue as a serious cultural issue. Political polarity is increasing. Governmental and corporate deceit reduces confidence. Photoshop has even made photography suspect.

The next issue will explore such issues, and suggest how educators can help students separate truth from destructive fiction.


Boyd, B. (2009) On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge MA: Harvard.

Brown, D. (2003) The da Vinci code. New York: Doubleday.

Brown, D. (2009) The lost symbol. New York: Doubleday.

Hawkins, J. (2004). On intelligence: How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation to truly intelligent machines. New York: Henry Holt.

Proulx, T. and Heine, J. (July 29, 2009). Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar. Psychological Science. Retrieved 3/1/2010 from

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