Studies by neuroscientists have shown that while reading fiction, our brains simulate the action narrated in the text. The information from the text is taken, integrated with the reader’s personal experience, and often those areas of the brain are activated which would also be involved if the reader was actually performing or observing comparable real life situations and activities.
And this is where we can see two benefits of reading (or writing) fiction. The first benefit manifests due to constraints on our time and resources: we can’t ‘feature’ in all the situations depicted by fiction writers. So it is handy for us to have such ‘simulation’ models provided to us by great writers. This use of models, resembles the use of the so-called ‘toy’ engineering models, which serve as substitutes for actuals cars, trucks, bridges, tunnels, etc. The aim of engineering models is to serve as tightly coupled substitutes of the original artifacts; much like people might watch the movie “Armageddon” as a dependable, ‘realistic’, substitute of space travel.
But there is another, second use of fiction. The fact is that even when we are in a particular situation, we are likely to miss the importance of the driving factors. Due to the noise, due to the hustle bustle, due to the “blooming buzzing confusion”, we can miss the underlying dynamic of the situation. And here fiction serves another purpose. The writer abstracts away the clutter. She only concentrates on the ‘important’ stuff, the stuff that gets to the heart of the matter, and her efforts make us feel that something has been explained, that we have understood something: that clarity has come where previously none existed. These kinds of models in fiction (or this use of fiction, as opposed to the first use) are similar to models in the sciences (as opposed to engineering).
Models in the sciences, don’t aim to describe the world out there. The idea is to construct explanatory models/theories for experimental results (and observation). The data from the world out there is too noisy and too ‘cluttered’. We need to abstract away from it. For example, if I throw a ball down from a tall building, with the wind and other factors playing a part, I would not arrive at Galileo’s law of falling bodies. It was only by abstraction and idealization, by constructing thought experiments on such fictional entities as frictionless planes, that Galileo managed to reach the “heart of the matter” and gave us insight where only confusion existed previously.