Navigating Fiction: Cognitive-Affective Engagement with Place in Children’s Literature

Author: Maria Nikolajeva (University of Cambridge)

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for identifying the spot in the human brain responsible for spatial orientation.[1] While not discovered yet, there is doubtless a mechanism in the brain that allows readers to orientate within fictional worlds. Such orientation is possible through life-to-text projection, when readers transfer their experience of real places onto fiction, as well as through text-to-life projection, when they learn how to navigate real worlds through reading experience. This essay explores the affordances made possible by fictional texts written and marketed for young readers, which enhance their understanding of fictionality and stimulate attention, imagination, memory, and other aspects of cognitive activity.

Cognitive criticism, on which the argument of this essay is based, is a cross-disciplinary approach to reading, literacy, and literature that suggests rethinking the literary activity as such, including interaction between readers and works of literature, but also the ways literary texts are constructed to maximize, or perhaps, rather, optimize, reader engagement.[2] Thus understood, cognitive criticism deals with (implied) authors’ strategies in text construction, as well as with artistic representation, including referentiality—the relationship between representation and its referent in the perceptible world. Cognitive criticism also deals with the means through which various kinds of human knowledge, from factual knowledge to ideology, can be expressed through artistic language.

What cognitive criticism so far has not paid sufficient attention to is the profound difference between young and adult readers.[3] Obviously, anything relevant for a reader with fully developed cognitive skills might prove problematic when discussing a reader whose cognitive skills are in the making. Moreover, a literary text aimed at readers with fully developed cognitive skills is likely to be different—if not necessarily more complex—from a text targeting a reader with emerging cognitive skills. Children’s literature is a unique literary mode in that the sender and the receiver of the text are by definition on different cognitive levels. The implication for children’s literature scholarship is that the cognitive discrepancy must inevitably be taken into consideration.[4]

With support from experimental research, we can now with confidence claim that reading fiction is beneficial for individuals and for humanity as a whole. It is not altogether wrong to claim, as evolutionary criticism does, that humanity has survived thanks to our ability to tell fictional stories.[5] But so far there hasn’t been much research about why reading fiction is especially beneficial for young people, and to understand this we need to know about the learning brain.[6] In 2013, Science published an article with the provocative title ”Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.”[7] A number of other studies confirm that reading fiction is beneficial for empathy and other social skills.[8] Theory of mind is the capacity to understand and assess other people’s mental states, including thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions, and motivations. Theory of mind is one of the most important social skills that children need to develop and that they start to develop around the age of four.[9] While the results of the above-mentioned studies may have come as a surprise for brain researchers and cognitive psychologists, researchers in reading and literacy have received experiment-based confirmation that reading fiction is good for our social and emotional development. However, there is a whole range of issues to be explored.

Cognitive criticism examines how texts of fiction engage readers cognitively and emotionally—that is, simply, why we care about reading fiction although we know that it is a product of an author’s imagination.[10] The specific focus of the present essay poses the following question: why do we care about Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, or Tír na nÓg, when we know that these places do not exist. Moreover, how do we know that they do or do not exist? With reference to experimental research, cognitive criticism explains that our engagement with fiction is possible because our brains can, through mirror neurons, respond to fictional events, settings, and characters as if they were real. Therefore, when we read a book of fiction, watch a film, or play a game, our brain emulates cognitive and affective responses to the actual world. Emotional engagement with fiction is not a romantic idea, but a measurable fact. We invest in fictional worlds because we believe, perhaps subconsciously, that they are a valuable source of information, indispensable for our survival.

At the same time, we can only enjoy fiction as long as we understand that it is fiction, as long as we can distinguish between fact and fiction—that is, that we have mastered the philosophical concept of fictionality.[11] Fiction is a complex structure of arbitrary signs and signifiers, as opposed to referents, the actual objects and phenomena that they signify. Readers need to understand the arbitrariness of signifiers in fiction as opposed to fact. The difference is crucial. Unlike the actual world, a text of fiction is a constructed set of selected events and characters, deliberately created by the author. An immediate understanding of the actual world is based on sensory perception that sends information to the spot in the brain that was identified by the 2014 Nobel Prize winners. The brain sorts this information, compares it with previous knowledge, selects the salient parts of it, and stores them away for future recall.[12] Most of this information is visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory; but the brain also performs some complex abstract operations.

In fiction, worlds and places are created through language. In reading fiction, we have no possibility of testing things empirically. Yet through mirror neurons, our brains are capable of responding to fictional worlds as if they were actual, by which I mean, capable of making sense of a linguistically constructed world by connecting it to our empirical or mediated knowledge of the actual world. Not only that, but because of mirror neurons, our perception of the fictional world is indeed sensory, embodied. We are able to experience the sense of space and place; to envision landscapes described exclusively by words; to feel cold and heat; to feel the sense of height or the darkness of a deep forest, the vastness of an ocean or the claustrophobia of narrow underground passages. From a fictional, linguistically conveyed representation, we create a mental picture, or image schema,[13] based on our previous empirical as well as literary experience. Furthermore, we perceive a fictional world as a metonymical representation of the actual world, an exemplification of a number of properties that characterize the actual world. Exemplification implies foregrounding: selection, organization, amplification, and manipulation of the properties that fiction sets out to convey. Conversely, fiction is considerably more focused on the particular; a fictional world is an isolated world, reminiscent of a scientist’s test tube, in which certain conditions are intentionally created for a certain purpose. A great number of external factors that determine the actual world are deliberately eliminated in fiction. Nothing is random or accidental; everything is part of a design. The cognitive process of understanding the actual world implies structuring and restructuring, sorting and reconfiguring information, as well as storing away facts that are no longer relevant. In fiction, most of this information is already structured, organized, and equally salient. The structure and salience is imposed on the reader, and the text deliberately emphasizes attractors, elements that need attention. Thus, the relationship between the actual world and its fictional representation constitutes a substantial cognitive gap that demands a number of cognitive and metacognitive skills. The assumption of my argument is that young readers do not possess these skills or have not yet fully developed them, and that fiction can potentially stimulate this development. Understanding of fiction, in turn, may create favorable conditions for learning about the actual world.


Possible worlds

A way of exploring our engagement with fiction is to employ the concept of “possible worlds,” used in philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines, and based on modalities such as probability, improbability, necessity, contingency, or desirability.[14] Possible worlds have also been utilized in theory of fiction to demonstrate how fictional space is constructed.[15] From the cognitive-affective perspective, the more remote a possible world is from the actual world, the more attention and imagination is required from us to engage with it. Cognitive critics explain readers’ engagement with fiction through conceptual models—schemas or scripts—that assist readers in connecting fictional, vicarious knowledge with real-life knowledge as well as with previous fictional knowledge.[16] A schema is a static image, while a script is an action pattern, a sequence of events. Scripts and schemas are not innate, but based on experience. Readers engage with fiction through recognition of schemas or acknowledgement of deviation from schemas, the latter demanding attention and memory that allow adjustment and restructuring.

Let us consider how we can orientate in a fictional world. The word “orientate” comes from “Orient” (Latin, oriens), meaning “east,” derived from the verb orior, “to rise.” To orientate implies the ability to identify direction through the position of the rising sun, which in our perceptible world rises in the east. Our ancestors noticed this early in the human history, and apparently other mammals, birds, fish, and insects also have this capacity, because it is essential for survival. The simple fact of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west is a script we do not contemplate. In a fictional world, the sun may or may not rise in the east. Relying on the script, we assume that it rises in the east and sets in the west, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, unless the text informs us, and thus the script is disrupted. Moreover, a fictional world may have three suns rather than one, or two moons rather than one. When encountering this information, our brain gets puzzled, because it cannot correlate the three-sun or two-moon schema with the previously stored information, whether empirical or mediated. Being puzzled stimulates cognitive activity: the brain does not merely passively receive information, but needs, sometimes very quickly, to restructure neural connections to adapt to a new schema, one that can accommodate a world where three suns rise and set haphazardly in different directions. If the narrative allows a pause when we can stop worrying about plot development and contemplate the consequences of three suns, we may ponder how gravitation works in this possible world (in the actual universe, there is so far no evidence of planets orbiting triple stars). More commonly, however, we are too preoccupied with the fate of the characters and our emotional investment in them to consider natural laws. The three-sun or two-moon schema may or may not be salient. In Patrick Ness’s YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, for example, two moons is a minor feature signaling that the fictional world is different from the actual world.[17] In the film The Dark Crystal, a three-sun setting is crucial when the imminent Great Conjunction pressures the hero to complete his task.[18] Even if the fictional world only has one sun, it may deviate from the familiar schema. In the YA fantasy novel Un Lun Dun, the sun looks like a bagel[19]—at least, the text says that it looks like a bagel, while the correct scientific term is a “torus.” We do not at the moment have reliable information of any sun in our universe shaped like a torus, but it does not mean that torus-shaped suns do not exist. It is a challenging idea, and while readers do not have much time to contemplate it because of the quickly paced plot, the idea emphasizes that the fictional city of Un Lun Dun is radically different both from the real-world London and from the fictional but accurately described London in which the book’s narrative starts.

Our knowledge of the actual world is based both on our perception and on scientific facts, which may be in contradiction. Our subjective perception is that the sun rotates around the earth, and until relatively recently in human history it was believed to be the fact. Our subjective perception is that the earth is flat, and it was once believed that if you travelled far enough you would reach the edge. Fiction allows us to encounter worlds incompatible with today’s scientific knowledge, but which are fully acceptable with beliefs from earlier in human history. A world that is a disc rather than a sphere may present a cognitive dissonance and even an absurdity for a modern reader but not for a hypothetical reader five-hundred years ago who might not even notice the detail because it would not deviate from their schema. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels,[20] readers are asked to imagine a world that is a disc and to remember it throughout the series, two important cognitive functions that alert the brain. The inhabitants of Discworld are not aware of the existence of non-disclike worlds—the reader has privileged knowledge in this way—but for Discworld people their knowledge is accurate. The hypothetical Roundworld is the object of constant mockery since a spheric-world schema is inconceivable. To cope with this information, our brain must perform a number of higher-order mind-reading operations in order to imagine how discworlders perceive the ridiculous idea of a spheric world .We may also be emotionally invested with a spheric world, seeing a disc-shaped world as a threat to our safety and stability—or, alternatively, we may be thrilled with the idea. Either way, our cognitive activity is enhanced.

In the Narnia Chronicles,[21] two schemas clash. While visitors discover in dismay that Narnia is flat, Narnians can hardly believe that a world can be spherical. Much like Copernicus’s contemporaries, they wonder why water does not run over the edges and how it is possible to walk upside down. Readers share the visitors’ knowledge and have to accept the alternative truth together with the characters. The revelation about the shape of Narnia does not come until the third book in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,[22] and until then neither the visitors not the readers have a reason to suspect that Narnia is anything other than a sphere since they follow the spheric-world schema. Moreover, in Narnia it is possible to reach the edge of the world if you travel far enough. As you do, the sun becomes bigger and brighter. The reader is faced with facts that are unfamiliar and therefore demand attention and imagination.

The worry with young readers is that they have limited knowledge of the actual world. For a young European or North American reader, Africa or Australia may be as real or as unreal as Narnia or Tír na nÓg; they present, simply, an unfamiliar-world schema. For many readers, a country where the sun never sets is an impossible idea to grasp, even though people in polar areas experience this phenomenon every summer. Then, if countries where the sun never sets are real, what else may be different in these worlds? Are there perhaps also trolls and elves? Are there vents leading inside the hollow earth? Are there dragons? If there is evidence that dinosaurs once existed, why not dragons? We have no scientific evidence of dragons, but we have no evidence that dragons had not existed once. Every year, scientists, especially in marine biology, discover new species that are far more bizarre than any fantastic beast in the Hogwarts textbook.[23] A young, learning brain experiences problems reconciling contradictory information. It may be difficult to sort facts from fiction and to decide which part of the fictional world approximates the familiar and which deviates from it. A bagel sun is a good indicator of unfamiliarity. A sun that never sets is not.

Our actual world has three dimensions: breadth, depth, and height. We seldom have a reason to contemplate or question this fact, and in most fictional worlds we assume the existence of three dimensions. Fiction, however, has repeatedly defied this assumption. Flatland,[24] which is not a children’s novel but could be read and enjoyed by young readers, endeavors to portray a character living in a two-dimensional world, without empirical knowledge of the third dimension. While science fiction writers have offered breathtaking descriptions of higher dimensions, in mathematics, there is a simple way of dealing with them by not trying to construct them visually, since by doing so, we force our brain to use the existing image schemas. The moment we let go of the familiar, higher dimensions become fully comprehensible.[25] This is something we need to practice when we navigate fiction: avoid trying to visualize unfamiliar space and instead let our brain play with it. Un Lun Dun, with its bagel-shaped sun, encourages exactly this, by flattening out the usual three-dimensional space as the characters cross over into the alternative world. In all these examples, our brain must make the effort to imagine how it would feel to live in a world like that and, frequently, to have no knowledge of worlds that are spheres, have a solid sun, and have three dimensions.

Among those natural laws that we know from the actual world are the linearity of time, cause and effect, and entropy. This is, however, not innate knowledge, but something we are taught or learn through empirical experience. A young child’s perception of time is different from that of adults, both in duration and direction; for a child it is fully comprehensible that time is not linear and that broken objects can become whole again. Numerous fictional narratives confirm this proposition. In fictional worlds, it is possible to travel through time in both directions. Time is an extremely complicated philosophical concept, and fiction readers are exposed to a variety of temporal schemas and scripts. Both philosophy and physics argue that time travel is hypothetically possible as long as retrocausation is not allowed—that is, the time traveler cannot change anything in the past that can affect the present.[26] Yet, in many stories, the whole purpose of time travel is to change the past, either to save the world or to pursue the characters’ own goals. The script is exploited, for instance, in a book like Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox.[27] In fiction, there are possible worlds in which time goes in reverse, counter to what we are used to in our actual world, and where cause and effect swap roles. If you have a time turner, you are able to be in different places at the same time.[28] Time can flow at a different pace for different species, and it is possible to redirect time from one world into another.[29] Some inhabitants have power over time and use it for their own purposes, as does Artemis Fowl in the first volume of the series.[30] All these temporal elements demand attention, since they prove crucial for the plot and the characters with whom we have emotionally invested.


Connecting with Xenotopia

As suggested, when encountering a fictional world, we assume that it resembles our own, unless told otherwise. In the mode called realism we meet possible worlds that we recognize from both lived experience and experience mediated through fiction and nonfiction. Young people may so far have limited experience of the actual world, but still they recognize it. They know about the laws of nature, such as gravity and entropy, about social structures and rules, and about human relationships. They recognize a concrete setting, such as the city, town, or village where they live, or a more general setting, such as those of urban and rural. They are also aware that there are other places where they haven’t been, and they know that some events take place in the past, for instance, in historical novels (although there the possible world is already more ambiguous than in a contemporary setting). But we can still relate to fictional people and adjust our expectations accordingly, because our brain has stored the necessary information for us. For instance, we know that in stories that are supposed to be realistic, human beings are mortal and animals cannot talk.

But in other kinds of fiction, we are cognitively vulnerable. Xenotopia—or “strangeworldliness”—offers cognitive challenges to the reader. We have no prior knowledge of the possible world; we don’t know the laws. Are people mortal? Do they have supernatural powers? Do all people have supernatural powers or just some of them? Can animals talk? Can all animals talk or just some of them? Why can they talk? What are the consequences of their ability to talk? We do not know the premises unless we get information from the text. Even if we have read similar stories before, we can never be certain about the rules of this particular possible world since our stored schemas and scripts may be invalid. A typical schema of a fairy is that of a fragile creature with wings and a magic wand; however, in Irish lore and fiction, fairies are far from fragile and seldom benevolent. In the Artemis Fowl series, “fairy” is a collective label for a wide range of figures with various skills, properties and habits, including elves, dwarfs, centaurs, and pixies. In Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman and sequels, fairies are not directly malevolent toward humans, but have their own goals. 

Xenotopia is therefore an exceptionally suitable device to engage readers—again, something that scholars of literature have intuitively known all along, but could not convincingly explain. A xenotopic world, with its strangeness and ambiguity, stimulates brain activity in a different way than realistic fiction. We must be alert; we cannot take anything for granted; we need to put together facts into a coherent whole to comprehend how this possible world works. The more difficult and demanding it is to orientate in a possible world, the better for the brain—though, within reason, as the encounter with a completely incomprehensible world will cause the brain to give up and switch to some activity that makes more sense. Of course, realistic fiction has its own ways to attract the reader’s attention, but fantasy and other related genres such as science fiction, dystopic fiction, or paranormal romance are by far superior for an adolescent’s developing and reorganizing brain. This also explains why most adults eventually lose interest in fantasy.

When reading a realistic or quasi-realistic text, such as adventure or romance, we project our knowledge of the actual world onto the possible world, employing a life-to-text interpretation strategy. A realistic text is constructed metonymically, as a smaller model of the actual world. A xenotopic world is constructed metaphorically. Cognitive criticism exploring linguistic aspects of fiction claims that both evolutionarily and within individual development, metaphor and figurative language in general precede everyday language; in other words, we think in metaphors even before we master language.[31] If so, the predominantly metaphorical construction of xenotopic worlds should be particularly beneficial for cognitive activity.

What does fiction then ask its readers to do? How does it direct readers to navigate a possible world where we have little help from our knowledge of the actual world? Let us consider a possible world in which animals can talk. During certain periods, and in different cultures, from Rousseau to Communist China, books about sentient, talking animals were questioned and even banned because they ostensibly gave young readers wrong information about animals. Cognitive research points out that our urge to anthropomorphize—that is, ascribe conscience to animals and objects—is the brain’s way to understand and contextualize them.[32] Young children’s gradual understanding of animacy, including imaginative play with soft toys as well as ascribing human traits to trains and cars, is an important part of their cognitive development. But there is a worry. Adults are supposed to know that animals cannot talk, or rather we think that we know it, simply because we have no experience of talking animals, neither from our own experience nor from any reliable source. The fully developed mechanisms of reasoning in an adult brain prompt it to conclude that talking animals are fictitious. Young children have no experience of talking animals or toys, but they have no reliable knowledge that animals cannot talk or that toys are not alive. Their repeated encounters with fictional stories confirm again and again that there are possible worlds in which animals can talk and inanimate objects come alive, worlds that are otherwise reminiscent of the actual world and worlds that have other unfamiliar traits, such as humans with supernatural powers. Here fiction puts two contradictory demands on readers. On the one hand, it asks us to accept that, within the framework of this particular possible world, some animals can talk and some humans have supernatural powers. On the other hand, we can only appreciate fiction if we are aware that it is fiction, that the possible world is different from the actual world, for which our brain needs to do some work to figure it out. It may take a fraction of a second, but it is still a necessary effort.

In the world of Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, cats can communicate with human beings.[33] This contradicts our knowledge of the actual world, but within the fictional world of the novel we readily accept that cats are sentient because we have a schema of sentient cats stored in our memory from a vast number of previously encountered stories. After the initial surprise, our brain adjusts to a world in which cats are sentient. However, while this new schema does not present a difficulty, the text immediately disrupts the schema when we are asked to share the perception of the protagonist. Wynter, our protagonist, is accustomed to a world in which cats are sentient; it comes as a shock for her, therefore, when a cat does not respond to her greeting. Her shock demands a further adjustment for the reader: in this possible world, cats normally talk, but this particular cat does not. It suggests that something is wrong, but only because we have already accepted the schema of sentient cats. The world of the Moorhawke trilogy, of which The Poison Throne is the first volume, is reminiscent of the actual world, although remote in history. The presence of sentient cats and ghosts informs the reader that, whilst similar, the possible world has properties incompatible with our knowledge of the actual world, which further requires the reader to consider the consequences.

Michael Scott’s Alchemyst trilogy[34] depicts a possible world in which some human beings are immortal. At first glance, it seems a radical disruption of the schema of a human being. However, recent biomedical research claims that it is possible to make humans a-mortal—not immortal, because they could still be killed, say, in road accidents, or through crime, but a-mortal in the sense of impeding aging forever, which is exactly what Nicholas Flamel has achieved with the elixir of life. In fiction, including children’s fiction, search for immortality has always been reserved for villains, with good reason. Being mortal is a part of being human, just as being born rather than manufactured is a part of being human, or just as procreation rather than cloning is a part of being human. A wish for immortality is a wish to transcend the limitation of the human body. Bioethics deals with these issues in real life. Speculative fiction allows us to contemplate these questions in an exaggerated form. To amplify the issue, The Alchemyst introduces a medley of other sentient species, borrowed eclectically from world mythology. The plot suggests that homo sapiens conquered and supplanted other species, who possessed magical powers, forcing the few survivors into hiding. This script is recognizable both from numerous fictional stories and from historical discourse. Moreover, the text mentions in passing that the twins’ archaeologist parents have discovered a new extinct hominid species, which brings to the reader’s attention that in some respects the possible world of The Alchemyst is not as remote from the actual world as it may seem. However, the use of magic, practiced by Nicholas and his enemy Dee, and “awakened” in Sophie, highlights the question of what it means to be human, if the definition of human is mortal and lacking magical power.

Possible worlds can be so familiar that we initially believe that they are an accurate reflection of the actual world. Later, perhaps halfway through Scott’s text, we realize that we have been employing a wrong modality. The world seems similar to our own, but there are some phenomena that deviate from it, such as magic. In The Alchemyst, the actual-world schema disruption comes almost immediately in the beginning of the novel, when magic is performed and readily accepted by the characters. It does not take long to readjust to the new schema. There is, however, a slight danger that, because of the proximity of the possible world to the actual world, some readers may confuse fact and fiction (as has happened, for instance, with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a book that, incidentally, mentions Flamel), believing that there are a-mortal human beings and magical inhuman species hiding among us. Nicholas Flamel is a real historical person, and readers can find him on Wikipedia, just as Josh does in the novel. The introduction of historical figures in fiction is a common feature; however, it does not make a possible world an exact copy of the actual world. By contrast, Diana Wynne Jones creates alternative worlds—particularly in the Chrestomanci novels[35]—and makes us believe, to begin with, that these worlds are our actual world, until a minor detail indicates that they are not. Taken by surprise, our brain must be active to fully follow. Similarly, in The New Policeman, it takes some time before the character, and thus the reader, realizes that the possible world includes a passage into fairyland. Readers, young and adult equally, may lack knowledge to decide whether the possible world is close or far away from our reality, and this gives our brain something to work on, because it enjoys processing and sorting information. A fictional text thus prompts us to pay attention since there may be unfamiliar facts about the possible world that are of consequence, such as the warped time in The New Policeman.

The scope and nature of engagement is also dictated by the ways in which possible worlds are connected with the real, albeit still fictional world of the narrative. The Poison Throne is an immersive fantasy in which the possible world is detached from the world as we know it. It is familiar for the protagonist, but unfamiliar for the reader who must assemble facts about the possible world as they are gradually revealed. The Alchemyst is an intrusive fantasy in which magical elements appear within an otherwise realistic world and present a threat to it. Artemis Fowl and The New Policeman are portal fantasies in which human beings are allowed to enter the magical world, what is, in both series, a mythical fairyland. In the last three examples, magic is unfamiliar for characters as well as readers, but facts and rules are revealed in various ways. Cognitive criticism points out that unfamiliar facts that we meet in fiction stimulate our brain such that it starts creating new pathways and connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Since so much in fantasy is strange and unfamiliar, our brain gets the exercise it needs, and it needs it especially during childhood and adolescence.

Yet even is the most remote possible world, many aspects are recognizable, not only with regard physical worlds, but also to social worlds. Fiction can play with different social structures that do not appear in the real world, but offer instead philosophical thought experiments. Some fictional worlds portray societies ruled or threatened by evil magic, as in The Alchemyst. Such worlds encourage us to compare societies we meet in them with our own world, thus projecting the fictional into the actual, employing text-to-life strategy and thus ultimately learning something about our own world. This repudiates the accusation of fantasy as a form of escapism. We do not engage with xenotopic worlds to escape from reality, but rather to understand it.

Preparing for travel, whether it is just to visit someone down the street or to fly to the other side of the world, we rely on previous information, sometimes accumulated through centuries. Some of our brave ancestors ventured beyond the known parts of their world, bringing back accurate maps and incredible stories of giants, dragons, and monopods. These stories were, and still are, ways of delineating the familiar and the unfamiliar, own and other. Maps and travelogues, even when misleading, were a way to understand the unfamiliar and incorporate it into the own. Travelling in the actual world, we use maps, guidebooks, foreign language phrase books, star charts, satellite navigation, traffic signs, verbal road instructions, hearsay, and our own intuition.

In fiction, we seldom have assistance from such sources. True, some fiction contains maps to help us follow the characters’ journeys and even to show parts of the world beyond the characters’ experience, as in The Poison Throne. Some authors provide paratexts containing historical and ethnographic background to their worlds, dictionaries, and other fictitious documents, as in The Alchemyst. Just as actual information, these sources are more or less reliable. For instance, history is always written from a certain perspective, and the way fictional historical facts are presented determines our engagement with fiction, including choosing sides. If a fictional world features several tribes or species, some of them might be presented as superior to others, as is clearly seen in The Poison Throne, while in The Alchemyst, the Elders are ostensibly superior to humans. Trolls, goblins, and orcs are frequently perceived as evil; dwarfs can be either good or evil; elves are typically benevolent, but unreliable, and all these creatures are opaque to us: we don’t know how their minds work, or what their rules of conduct or ethical values are.

However, in most cases, fiction does not provide us with any substantial assistance for orientation. Information is released to us in small portions, requiring that we pay attention and use our imagination and memory in order to assemble a somewhat coherent picture of the fictional world. Sometimes, the information is contradictory; sometimes essential facts are not revealed until the middle or the end of the narrative, or even in a sequel. Moreover, while in the actual world we cannot help observing landscape, environment, living creatures, and inanimate objects, in fiction this information can be minimal and even omitted altogether. We have to supply this information from our previous knowledge, both empirical and mediated.

As mentioned, our cognitive and emotional engagement with fiction is to a high degree dependent on surprise. Surprise is a strong emotion that is evolutionarily conditioned. Taken by surprise, our ancestors had to make a quick decision: flee or fight. A misjudgment could be fatal. In engagement with fiction, we are not directly exposed to danger, but through mirror neurons our brain still has to make the decision: is it wise to accept food from a stranger? Is it more appropriate to trust a beaver than a wolf? Whether in fiction or the real world, we are not normally surprised to see a lamp-post in, say, an urban street. Moreover, unless the lamp-post were relevant for the action, we might merely register it in passing as a minor detail in the setting. However, in encountering a lamp-post in the middle of a thick wood,[36] we are certainly puzzled, because it disrupts the familiar lamp-post script, and our brain becomes alert. If there is a lamp-post in the middle of a forest, then what else should we be prepared to meet in this strange world? Frequently, publishers and even scholars suggest the “correct” chronological reading of the Narnia Chronicles beginning with The Magician’s Nephew.[37] In doing so, though, the strong sense of surprise of seeing a lamp-post in the middle of a wood is disturbed if you already know why it is there. A substantial bit of your mental activity in reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is precluded if you already know who Aslan is, which the characters don’t yet know, or if you know that the White Witch is evil, and that the Professor with whom the children are staying has been to Narnia.


Dealing with Unfamiliar Creatures

Our experience of fictional worlds is vicarious, by proxy. To be able to do experience vicariously, we need to switch on our theory of mind and our empathy—that is, the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Possible worlds are populated by possible beings, and fiction allows us to meet characters whom we would never meet in the real world, including humans and non-humans that do not appear in the real world, such as wizards and witches, gods and demi-gods, fairies, dragons, basilisks, and other unfamiliar figures. Our brain is stimulated by these creatures because they puzzle it. Fiction also puts its protagonists in situations that seldom or never occur in the real world. Here fiction encourages a thought experiment: What if...? How does it feel to suddenly find yourself in a magical world? Or, conversely: how does it feel for a magical creature to find themselves in a non-magical world? How does it feel to meet people who probably think and feel differently from your world? Who have qualities you are not familiar with? Who have their souls outside their bodies? Who can read your thoughts? Whose thoughts can you read, whether you want to or not?

To be able to engage with fictional characters, we need to employ empathy. Empathy is arguably one of the most important skills that makes us human beings, and it helps us to survive as individuals and as a species. Empathy, the ability to understand other people’s feelings, is not an innate skill, but can be learned and trained. The most important aspect of empathy is that it must work independently of our own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. We must be able to empathize with someone whose beliefs we don’t share. But there is a worry about young readers’ capacity of liberating themselves from the narrative perspective imposed by the text. Artemis Fowl is a problematic novel because it offers readers a choice of either a morally depraved child or a violent fairy, whose ways of thinking are equally alien. We should be able to empathize with someone whom we find repulsive; but it requires a certain level of cognitive-affective maturity. Once again: fiction demands that we are active and respond quickly to every new situation. Every step can be dangerous. We must make up our mind regarding whom we can or cannot rely on. We need to guess what thoughts and emotions govern characters’ actions and reactions, how they assess each other’s actions, and how they get deceived and fall into pits.

In The Poison Throne, readers are likely to align with Wynter, who provides the primary lens through which readers gather narrative information; thus readers do not know more than she does, and therefore they need to decide, together with her, whom they can trust in the intricate twists of the plot. Wynter can be wrong in her judgements, but because readers know so little about the rules of the possible world, they are vulnerable. Yet they are invited to see through Wynter’s biased perception and make their own inferences about other characters. For instance, Wynter tries to understand why Razi behaves the way he does, what his intentions are. Readers are asked to perform higher-order mind-reading: what does one character think and feel about another character’s thoughts and feelings, and is any of this information reliable? In The Alchemyst, readers are likely to align with Flamel against Dee, mainly because of the young protagonists. Yet this presents a concern: why would you trust an ancient magician, who has used dark magic merely to keep himself and his wife immortal? Do you trust him simply because you have known him for a couple of weeks as a kind bookseller? Of course, the twins do not have much choice when they get involved with the battle between Flamel and Dee, but the text seems to suggest that their theory of mind was switched off. Readers, however, have access to other characters’ minds, even the villains’, and are in a privileged position over the protagonists, since they know more, including Flamel’s not-quite-honest intentions. This may add suspense, but it dilutes the cognitive-affective potential of the text.  

The foremost, and probably only, reason we read fiction is to learn about other people. Fiction allows us something that we can never do in real life: enter someone else’s mind. We do it because we are curious about how other people feel, not to mention as well that other people feel just like us. Fortunately, few of us will ever experience extreme horror or extreme hatred. We haven’t gone through a wardrobe to find ourselves in a world of eternal winter, or through a cairn to find ourselves in a place where stolen time is stored. We don’t slay dragons; we don’t find magical rings that make us invisible but corrupt our soul. We would not know how to use magic even if we had magical powers yet dormant. We don’t travel through time to another historical period. We don’t find strange hairy creatures who grant us wishes. We don’t receive invitations on our eleventh birthday to attend a school of wizardry. We are not confronted with evil magic in a bookshop where we have a summer job. And yet, as human beings, we are inevitably interested, or should be interested, in emotions and mental states that we haven’t experienced and will probably never experience. This is what fiction allows us to do, without exposing ourselves to fatal mistakes or small embarrassments.

The novels discussed in this essay come from non-mimetic modes, primarily fantasy. This is not coincidental, since non-mimetic possible worlds are farthest away from the actual world and are therefore less familiar. The less familiar a fictional world is, the more attention, imagination, memory, and other cognitive activity is demanded. Therefore, for my present purpose, non-mimetic modes offer clearer and more explicit examples of our navigation in fiction. However, I would go a step further and claim that non-mimetic modes have stronger potential to engage readers cognitively and emotionally. Cognitive criticism refers to proximate and remote associations in fiction, claiming that remote associations are more creative and stimulate greater cognitive activity. It also points out that texts that defy our genre expectations affect our cognitive models. By this I do not question the value of realism; I merely put forward a hypothesis that non-mimetic modes are more beneficial for the learning brain. Fantasy has high status within children’s and young adult literature, while in general, literature it is most often treated as trash. Fantasy is also a popular genre with young readers. With neuroscience, we understand better why. While young adult fiction at its emergence in the 1960s was firmly connected with social realism, the bloom of fantasy, dystopia, and paranormal romance for young adult readers in the twenty-first century reflects, apart from commercial reasons, a realization of its cognitive potential. Moreover, it is to a high degree non-mimetic narratives that started the prominent phenomenon of crossover—that is, books read by and therefore marketed for multiple audiences of young and grown-up readers.

I would therefore claim that non-mimetic narrative modes and non-mimetic fictional worlds allow us to explore big questions in a way that realistic fiction has only limited possibilities to do. I also claim that the popularity of non-mimetic fiction among young readers is not coincidental, and therefore it certainly does not deserve the contempt it frequently meets. Reading fantasy is good for young people because it stimulates their cognitive, emotional, ethical, and aesthetic development. And, sadly, if they don’t read fantasy, their brain will, in its restructuring, close down all connections necessary for this process.


[1] See, for example, Francesca Sargolini, Marianne Fyhn, Torkel Hafting, Bruce L. McNaughton, Menno P. Witter, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser, “Conjunctive Representation of Position, Direction, and Velocity in the Entorhinal Cortex,” Science 312 (2006), 758-762, listed as a key publication in the Nobel Prize press release.

[2] See, for example, Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002).

[3] See Hugh Crago, Entranced by Story: Brain, Tale and Teller, from Infancy to Old Age (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[4] See Maria Nikolajeva, Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2014).

[5] See Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

[6] See, for example, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith, The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2005); and Usha Goswami, Cognitive Development: The Learning Brain (New York: Psychology Press, 2007).

[7] David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342 (2013): 377-380.

[8] See, for example, P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp, “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation,” PLoS ONE 8.1 (2013): e55341, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341; and Loris Vezzali, Sofia Stathi, Dino Giovannini, Dora Capozza, and Elena Trifiletti, “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 45 (2015): 105-121, doi:10.1111/jasp.12279.

[9] Martin J. Doherty, Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others’ Thoughts and Feelings (Hove: Psychology Press, 2009).

[10] See, for example, Colin Radford, “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” in Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings, ed. Eileen John and Dominic McIver Lopes (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 170-176; Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2006); Mitchell Green, “How and What We Can Learn from Fiction,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature, ed. Gary L. Hagberg and Walter Jost, (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) 350-366; Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); and Patrick Colm Hogan, What Literature Teaches Us about Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[11] See, for example, R. M. Sainsbury, Fiction and Fictionalism (London: Routledge, 2009); Jonathan Hart, Fictional and Historical Worlds (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012); Eric Hayot, On Literary Worlds (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Mark Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[12] See, for example, M.H. Matthews and Shirley Addleton, Making Sense of Place: Children’s Understanding of Large Scale Environments (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992).

[13] See Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford UP (1996); and Patrick Colm Hogan, The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003).

[14] See Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (London: Wiley, 1992). 

[15] Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994); and Lubomir Dolezel, Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

[16] Hogan, Mind and its Stories.

[17] Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (London: Walker Books, 2008).

[18] Jim Henson and Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal, dir. Jim Henson (Jim Henson Productions, 1982).

[19] China Mieville, Un Lun Dun (London: Macmillan, 2007).

[20] See, for instance, Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic (London: Smythe,1983), the first of the forty Discworld novels.

[21] See, for example, C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950), the first of the seven Narnia novels

[22] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952).

[23] See J.K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

[24] E.A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006).

[25] See, for example, Timothy Gowers, Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002).

[26] See, for example, G. Richard Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

[27] Eoin Colfert, Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox (London: Viking, 2008)

[28] As in J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (London: Bloomsbury, 1999)

[29] As in Kate Thompson, The New Policeman (London: Bodely Head, 2005).

[30] Eoin Colfert, Artemis Fowl (London: Viking, 2001)

[31] See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Turner, The Literary Mind.

[32] See Vermeule, Why Do We Care, 21-22.

[33] Celine Kiernan, The Poison Throne (Dublin: O’Brien, 2008)

[34] Michael Scott, The Alchemyst (London: Random House, 2007).

[35] See, for example, Jones, Charmed Life (London: Macmillan, 1977), the first of the Chrestomanci series.

[36] As we famously do in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[37] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London: Bodley Head, 1955)