Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310


Chapter 5?

Why Do We Believe?

III. Neuro-Psychoanalysis

    We preceded the neuroscientific part of this exploration by positing four things that make up the momentary spell that is the willing suspension of disbelief:

    1. We cease to pay attention to our bodies.

    2. We cease to pay attention to what surrounds the literary work.

    3. We stop testing cause-effect, realism, and probability.

    4. We feel as though the events we perceive "in" the literary work were really happening.

We found brain processes that explained these four.

    So long as we pay close attention to the literary work, we pay less attention to our bodies, their position in space, and whatever surrounds the thing we are paying attention to. The frontal lobe areas that focus attention on the literary work take attention and energy away from the sensory information coming in about our bodies and the world outside the literary work. They decrease our conscious awareness of the world outside the work of literature (Joseph 551).

    We know that this is a literary work, not "real" in the sense that it is not the opposite of a dream. We don't have to act in response to it. In the spell of willing suspension of our disbelief, then, we shut down our processes for generating alternatives to what we are seeing, hearing or reading. Our conscious knowledge that this is not real, this is only a story, "turns off" those processes in the dorsolateral surface of the prefrontal cortex. Failing to generate counterfactuals, we cease to reality-test.

    Finally, what we perceive in the story or drama we convey to our emotional processes, involving the amygdala and other limbic circuits. These prompt us to act, but our conscious knowedge that the events we are seeing are not "really" happening inhibits action. Don't act, says the orbital prefrontal cortex, and we don't. But the feelings generated by those subcortivcal systems remain, and we feel toward the events on page or screen or stage as though they were "really" happening.In other words, It is precisely my knowledge that I am not in fact dying of thirst with

Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink

that allows me to feel the Ancient Mariner's despair.

    Notice, too, how all these processes reinforce one another at a psychodynamic level. The more attention I pay to the literary work, the less I devote to body and environment. The less attention i devote to body and environment, the less I can test their reality. The less I test their reality, the less I pay attention to them. The more attention I pay to the play or story, the more intensely I will feel it. There are all kinds of positive feedbacks among these different brain processes that tend to reinforce the willing suspension of disbelief. And, too, the neuroscience dovetails with the psychodynamic explanation and enlarges it.

    What we have gleaned from both psychodynamics and neuroscience tells us the introjection necessary for this fourfold experience of a literary work depends on our being conscious of two expectations. First, the work will give us pleasure. That is why we pay attention to it in the first place. Second, we will not have to act on it. That knowledge affects a variety of brain processes that reinforce one another to make possible our willing suspension of disbelief. Together, they allow us the absorption, the losing ourselves, the taking in, that gives us the pleasure we came for, the pleasure in the process psychodynamics describes.

    Knowing we do not have to act guarantees us pleasure. The pleasure confirms us in our knowledge that we do not have to act. If either expectation is defeated, if we cease to enjoy the work, if we are forced to act , we break our fusion with the work and we "snap out of it."

    Our suspension of disbelief often lasts only a moment, or a moment here and there as we read or watch. Even if the willing suspension of disbelief lasts longer, almost anything can break it. The man next to me in the movie theater may slurp his Pepsi-Cola too loudly or the woman on the other side may have to clamber past me to to go to the ladies' room, and my attention is drawn to them instead of the movie on the screen. I may want to get up from my easy chair where I am reading to get another glass of wine. I act and sense my body and the world around me and the reality of them. Whatever brings into play my systems for assessing and acting on the real world will end my disbelief in the unreality of what I am reading or watching. Yet the lure of the pleasure of experiencing emotions without their price in reality can draw me almost instantaneously back into the willing suspension of disbelief.

    Readers or audience can break the dyadic tie to the work if physical or psychic discomfort becomes too severe. For example, if I find the book I am reading very hard going (late Henry James, for example, or Proust), I do not willingly suspend of disbelief. As our readers said, "The continuum goes from totally absorbed (cinema) to fairly distanced, self-conscious hunting for something (non-fiction). Fiction can go either way (rarely a blend though)." "Varies but usually I'm completely absorbed--even by crude stuff--in fact, apt to be more critical, aware and less absorbed by `high art.'"

    Conversely, I may think a book is too easy (a book of nursery rhymes, say) or a film is trite and predictable. If so, I do not willingly suspend of disbelief--I feel my boredom. In short, I need to feel just the right amount of effort to maintain what Michael Czikszentmihalyi has called "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi). Otherwise, as my eight-year-old daughter said, "When I read it, just word by word, then it's just like reading a book."

    The literary work can fracture break our willing suspension of disbelief, too. And when it does, it gives us a nice test of this explanation of the willing suspension of disbelief.


    Tinkering with the introjecting process can lead to some of the more exotic effects possible in literature. I am thinking of those novels, like Tristram Shandy or Les Faux-Monnayeurs, which are novels about writing the novel which is the novel. In Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, for example, one of the notebooks tells about a novelist trying to write a novel. A friend asks her to give him the first sentence, and the novelist rattles off the first sentence of The Golden Notebook itself. Somehow the novel has stopped beng a fiction and become a statement about something quite "real" to me,, the book I am physically holding, "real" in the sense of the opposite of a dream. I start reading it as I read history instead of the way I read fiction (as in the "experiment" with The Cloister and the Hearth in chapter 3?). I get that strange feeling Freud called "The Uncanny." It is the feeling we get when something familiar seems suddenly strange and unfamiliar. It is the feeling we get from stories about doubles, ghosts, or the undead.

    The theater gets this effect in the metatheatrical tradition of Pirandello and many of the absurdists like Genet or Ionesco or Weiss. In cinema, there is the grand guignol scene of Ingmar Bergman's The Magician (Ansiktet, 1958), where one cannot tell if the magician/filmmaker's grisly tricks are really tricks or really real, that is, physically happening to us. The ending of Dr. Caligari raises the question whether what we have seen is "real" or the hallucinations of madness. The recent film Memento (2000) (a study in anterograde amnesia) plays constanty with our minds: is what we are seeing on the screen before us what is happening in the story ("real" within the fiction) or a false memory ("unreal" within the fiction) of the protagonist, an illusion planted by the bad guys? The Spanish film, Abre los Ojos ( Open Your Eyes) (1997), remade as Vanilla Sky (2001) turns itself on its head: the things we have been watching, apparently the story of the movie, turn out to be a dream installed by the cryogenic team to whom the hero has resorted to preserve his body for eventual awakening from death.

    It is even possible to create such an exotic effect with literary criticism. A book by Charles Simmons called Powdered Eggs (1964) includes a supposed review of Powdered Eggs in which the reviewer concludes:

There is even, in the last section of the book, a harsh mock review of the hook itself, intended, I imagine, to disarm criticism. Well, it fails entirely. Many is the book reviewer, I suspect, who, like myself, will see in it his own distaste articulated. In fact, I am now quoting word for word from the same mock review.

    I find such effects peculiarly unsettling--why?

    I feel an uncertainty as to whether the supposed fiction I am reading or watching is really a fiction or a reality about a fiction. This is merely an intellectual puzzle, however. All kinds of shifts have taken place in my brain. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex had been using the total literary context to make predictions about my situation. It has been fooled, and it "knows" it has been fooled. The ventral striatum, which had been monitoring the reliability of those predictions, now becomes activated by the sudden, unexpected change in context, with resulting changes (probably) in emotions and feelings toward potential actions (Berns, Cohen and Mintun).

    Because of these brain changes, particularly, these nonfictions within fictions create a deeper, inner sense of uncertainty (in me, at least), an uncanny feeling such as seeing my double would produce. Suddenly, the cortical processes for testing reality that I had turned off turn back on. I become aware of my situation in the world. Cognitively, I no longer feel sure of my cognitive judgment that this was not "real." The emotions I was feeling now may have become inappropriate. Or the emotions I was feeling but not acting on may now prompt me to act. I begin to think of counterfactuals. Should I act on this? I shouldn't, of course, but I have to weigh the possibility anew.

    In a way, because we fuse with a work of art, to call its reality into question is to question our own. Because these effects leave me judging whether I am confronting a reality or a fiction, something to be or not to be introjected in a primitive way, I have to question my own position in reality. Have I mixed up fiction and reality as a madman would?

    But that is the aim of literature, isn't it? to get us to believe in what the writer has created. At least it is for literature that seeks to arouse in us "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith," and much literature does try to achieve that. Certainly the mother of all novels does. In a way, all fictions lead us into worlds as unreal as Don Quixote's in which we believe--or do not disbelieve--all manner of impossible things. Yet fiction is much more than madness. We respond in special ways to what it imagines for us. Why? Why do we do that?

Neurology Meets Psychoanalysis

    Why literature? Without trying to answer that question until another chapter, we are now in a position to state how and why we willingly suspend disbelief. We have two kinds of explanation, psychodynamic and neuroscientific, and we can combine them.

    We come to a literary work with two conscious expectations: first, that it will give us pleasure (of an oral, "taking in" kind); second, that it will not require us to act on anything but itself. The literary work thus finds in us a matrix reaching back through many, many experiences of gratification in fantasy to our earliest experience of passive satisfaction in the arms of a nurturing mother. That first gratification prior to our recognition of ourselves as separate beings, and thorugh literature we re-create that undifferentiated self. We absorb and become absorbed into the literary experience. Indeed, as Tyrone Guthrie's examples show, we can become absorbed in any external reality to which we come with those two expectations, to be fed pleasure and not to act: music, painting, novel, or philosophical argument. "Plongée dans Ia beauté, l'intelligence fait son repas de néant." Camus's phrasing ("Sunk in beauty, the mind feeds on nothing"), like so many others, shows the link between "absorption" and orality.

    But that is a psychoanalytic term and a psychoanalytic explanation. What is its relation to the neurological explanations we have seen? Mark Solms and Karen Kaplan-Solms have wisely counseled that simply finding analogies between what neurologists find and what psychoanalysts find is not scientific (Solms; Kaplan-Solms and Solms). For Coleridge's observation of the willing suspension of disbelief, that means that we do not arrive at a truly neuro-psychoanalytic explanation by simply presenting a psychoanalytic explanation and a neurological one and assuming an analogy between them.

    Rather, these two authors say, neurologists and psychoanalysts should each do their separate sciences. The two specialties use different observations and methods and draw different kinds of conclusions. Psychoanalysts listen to free associations and interpret them. Neurologists, among other things, correlate behaviors to what they see in the physical brain either from lesions or brain scans. One needs to look for causal relationships between the neurologists' explanations and the psychoanalysts' explanations of behavior.

    In finding the imagery of eating and merger in people's descriptions of their willing suspensions of disbelief , a psychoanalytic literary critic like me fairly infers a regression toward a situation of maternal feeding. In that state, we enjoy a mouthy, passive pleasure and have little concern for the causes or probabilities of things. In neurological terms, our conscious knowledge in the prefrontal lobes that we are not acting or going to act inhibits perceptual circuits in the parietal lobes and premotor impulses while allowing emotional circuits in the limbic system full play. We have seen in both psychodynamic and neuroscientific terms that expecting pleasure and knowing we are not going to act shuts down brain processes of perceiving the body, its situation in space, and judging probabilities so that we feel emotionally as though what we are perceiving is "real." We no longer sense a boundary between us and the work of literature, as the psychoanalysts say and the neurologists studying meditation or attention and neglect.

     A psychoanalytic literary critic describes the phenomenon as a regression. What might be the neurological basis for such a regression? It would be the shutting down of those brain systems that conceptualize the separation of self from other. And it would be the shutting down of concern about cause-and-effect or verisimilitude. As we have seen, it would be shutting down of systems for initiating motion, therefore, for considering alternatives, becoming aware of one's body in space, and so on.

    As we have noted, Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief resembles a variety of other psychological behaviors--meditation, hypnosis, potential space, Rorschach responses, responses to charisma, "flow" in creation, the "Internet regression," and so on. All these a psychoanalyst would describe by one term, "regressive." It might be, then, that, underlying all these behaviors, there is a single neural mechanism, the turning off of key motor and perceptual circuits for connecting us to the real world outside ourselves. If so, we might be achieving in this chapter an explanation of regression in general that combines psychoanalytic reasoning with neuroscentific. I am being, of course, quite hypothetical, even downright speculative. I am offering you what may just be a fiction, and for it I shall not ask your willing suspension of disbelief.

Works Cited

Berns, Gregory S., Jonathan D. Cohen, and Mark A. Mintun. "Brain Regions Responsive to Novelty in the Absence of Awareness." Science 276 (23 May 1997): 1272-75.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity." The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Robert J. Sternberg. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 325-39.

Joseph, Rhawn. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience: Emotion, Evolution, Cognition, Language, Memory, Brain Damage, and Abnormal Behavior. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996.

Kaplan-Solms, Karen and Mark Solms. Clinical Studies in Neuro-Psychoanalysis: Introduction to a Depth Neuropsychology. London: Karnac Books, 2000.

Solms, Mark. "An Example of Neuro-Psychoanalytic Research: The Right Hemisphere Syndrome." Lecture. Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, 2001.