DreamTime

The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. …

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. …

Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.  First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn’t include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you. (more)

Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors.  But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful.  It seems rather implausible that this was only because “imagination … hijack[s] mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure.”  Surely our foragers would have evolved a resistance to such imagination, if it in fact wasted valuable time.  I’m pretty confident that since foragers had stories and art, then stories and art must have served, and still serve, important functions.

Modern humans often prefer to believe that the activities which they most treasure have no evolutionary function – that they were accidents.  This attitude helps them stay blind to those functions, awareness of which would make their treasured activities seem less noble.

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  • http://cephalicfurrow.wordpress.com PeterW

    Perhaps the marginal value of time in the past was small. Most obviously, enforcement of monogamy would decrease the value of the marginal amount of time spent chasing tail.

  • Buck Farmer

    There’s something to be said for distracting the conscious mind when there are no nearby useful opportunities. Curiousity killed the cat, you know?

    • dave hatfield

      but satisfaction brought him back… you know?

  • JohnM

    Read an article by Keith Oatley, Ph.D. last month that addressed the utility of reading fiction. I found his conclusion illuminating:

    Narrative fiction isn’t a set of observations that are flawed by lack of reliability and validity. It’s a simulation. Narrative was the very first kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds. It’s a kind of simulation that enables us to enter social contexts that otherwise we would never know.

    • mjgeddes

      He’s nailed it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he read this blog and got his ideas from here. Narrative reality is to social reality as virtual reality is to physical reality. LW/OW folks still totally fail to see the implications here however. You’re all still very much asleep.

      The question folks here should be asking themselves is if there is any clear distinction between a *simulation* of reality, and *reality* itself it? Could it be that the *simulation* framework is a more effective framework that any alleged *real* world? If you consider the multiverse view of qauntum mechanics, it can be considered a simulation of reality, but then, where is the real? To wit, what you think of as the real could be *embedded* (merely part of) the simulation. (This is the MWI is it not?)

      Generalize the above principle and apply it to rationality itself. If categorization/analogical inference is an *approximation*/*simulation* of rationality, and Bayesian inference is the alleged *real* rationality…. well…you need to start wondering whether there is any clear distinction don’t you? Remember, you never see reality in itself, you can only ever see your mental simulation of it.

      There is no escape from the dream, but that doesn’t mean we cannot wake up.

      “So here it is, another chance
      Wide awake you face the day
      Your dream is over… or has it just begun?”

      -Silent Lucidity Lyrics
      Artist(Band):Queensryche

      • John Maxwell IV

        “Could it be that the *simulation* framework is a more effective framework that any alleged *real* world?”

        More effective for what?

        It sounds as though you are suggesting that we put our head in the sand and ignore what we normally think of as “reality” in favor of imaginary worlds that we dream up ourselves. Is that correct?

      • mjgeddes

        No quite the reverse, I’m suggesting we pull our heads *out* of the sand and look for a deeper reality than the one we see. Virtual reality, for example, can be used not only for game playing but also for simulations of new kinds of drugs. Stories not only exercise the imagination, but also provide illustrations of how specific social contexts work.

        By considering a range of possible worlds, you obtain further insights into this one. Simulation frameworks are effective precisely because they help us engage with reality better. The key missing insight is to take a step back and apply the simulation framework to rationality itself.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny
  • http://www.funkyj.com Funky J

    I think you’re spot on Robin.

    Considering every single human society evolved a religious system, it is certainly true that foragers must have had no resistance to imagination.

    For what are Gods and Spirits but the ultimate imagined beings?

    Foragers couldn’t see nor understand the workings of the universe around them, so imagined how the universe around them actually worked.

    This article is a few years old now, but I still find myself coming back to it to help explain why religion exists, from a evolutionary perspective.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/magazine/04evolution.t.html?_r=1&ex=1174536000&en=4c59f94375645243&ei=5070

  • mike shupp

    Bah, humbug, Consider an early hominid, from anytime after say 2 million BC. He thinks …

    (1) The deer I’m chasing is wounded, weak, tired. I can’t see its tracks on this gravel-covered hillside, but it won’t be swerving away from its path to go uphill into the trees. It’ll be moving downhill, away from the dangers of the forest, toward water, towards the great pool of water a half hour’s run from here….

    (2) I’m horney tonight. The woman with long dark hair that excites me is staring at the Old Man now, but he is embracing a short haired blonde. I have hunted well today, I have brought back my weight in venison to the tribe and other women have stroked my sides, have smiled at me, have pressed lips against my neck and cheeks… Let me show to advantage tonight, let me sing loudly at the fireside when others are mute, and she will be forced to look at me more than at other men …

    (3) The ugly man I have never seen before is standing still, bent over, breathing heavily, obviously exhausted. I should feel fear but he is little different from other men among the People. I will drop my spear — nosily, so that he is sure to notice. I will walk towards him with my hands upraised so he will see I bear no weapons. I will call out a greeting in the words used by the People, I will put my bare arm about his back …

    (4) The skies have turned dark, water falls over me and others, the air itself is cold, the ground beneath me slippery, flame flashes overhead and great angry voices shout. I must kneel to show my smallness, to acknowledge the Powers That Rule the World, for surely there is no other way to survive…

    You have the idea I think. Even a small amount of imagination, the tiniest bit of anticipation and foresight grounded in experience, even in a creature with an IQ barely measurable by modern testing, would have been hugely important to our distant ancestors.

    Let us assume Homo erectus or Homo ergaster or Homo antecessor had such mental powers. Let us assume the course of evolution rewarded our ancestors who made the most use of these capabilities and was less bountiful to those who remained closest to ordinary animals in their mental skills. Then it is not unreasonable to think that imagination is something “built into” our modern species, that abstract thought and reasoning and experimentation have become part of our being as surely as an upright posture and bifocal vision. We have become mighty hunters as a result, we have become scientists and shamen, we have become artists and novelists and opera composers, we have become bloggers.

  • Hrm

    I agree with the above poster that there are many good, functional reasons for these things (come up with new ideas or refine old ideas which help you/others, exercise the mind, used as a source/blueprint for other things [3 laws of robotics come to mind]).

    That said, even if they didn’t have a functional purpose, the ideas that “We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones” doesn’t seem quite right. Shouldn’t it be more like “We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish the feeling they give us from real ones, with the added bonus that they basically have none of the downsides like effort, commitment, disease, time used, annoying qualities, etc.” plus the “dull bits left out”?

    Once we have “perfect” virtual worlds that we can program, reprogram, change the difficulty setting of, and reset/start over, who, except for a few reality-conservatives would bother with the real world?

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  • srid

    When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …

    Reading books, movies, video games and television are as real as, say, touching the ashtray. The imaginative part in them is due to the “affective inner world” on which stories/beliefs are weaved as one (sensuously) consumes books, movies, video games and television. For eg., even though playing (online multiplayer) video games is tangible/real, one can nurse feelings of shame/revenge/pride in one’s imaginative world, which world is sustained by one’s inner affective mood. The same argument can be applied for fiction and movies.

    Day dreaming is completely imaginative.

    More on imagination: http://actualfreedom.com.au/library/topics/imagination.htm

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    We already understand this pretty well, IMO. Chess computers spend most of their time thinking – rather than making moves on the board. It is much the same thing. We calculate the possible consequences of our actions – to choose between them. And we consider our possible actions in unfamiliar circumstances – so we can react faster if those circumstances arrive.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Of course, there is also truth in the idea that the natural human love of fantasy has been hijacked by modern super-stimuli – resulting in millions of unhealthy and compromised couch-potatoes.

  • Noumenon

    Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors. But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful.

    As with everything you say about our forager ancestors, how do you know this? You can’t know directly. Are you thinking about reports from Native Americans, the Kung San, what? To me it seems like common non-modern leisure activities are stuff like long hunting trips, talking about the weather, drinking tea or beer, and working on hobbies like those ancient hand axes. Stories seem like the province of religion mainly, or the odd gifted storyteller.

  • gregorylent

    you need to know about the subtle body, sukshma sharira in sanskrit, to deal with this subject in anything more than the cursory manner above.

  • Indy

    Am I the only one that thinks this post is modern-intellectual biased? It ignores the large number of men who would spend the largest portion of their free time fishing, hunting, playing or watching sports, etc… – if they could.

    I know retired men who do little else – in fact – spent much of their working years building up enough capital to move to a place and afford to do exactly this all year round.

    Fishing all the time was their goal – they spent much of their “reality” working towards achieving their “dream”. Is fishing or playing games “unreal”? It doesn’t seem to be on the same “imaginary” level as enjoying entertaining fiction.

  • Bock

    “This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days.”

    Is it? Don’t most mammals spend most of their time sleeping–and perhaps dreaming?

  • http://queersingularity.wordpress.com/ Summerspeaker

    Like Stephen Jay Gould, I’m skeptical of an adaptive function to everything. On the other hand, characterizing such an important human trait as imagination as a simple side-effect does not satisfy. I suspect y’all have rightly identified some of the fitness advantages to fantasy. But remember it has its own purpose as well. For example, I assure you my dreaming will do nothing to reproduce my genes, as selfish as they may be. We humans are marvelously complicated creatures.

  • Bryan Caplan

    But Robin, won’t you at least admit that the time we now spend on imaginary worlds is highly unadaptive?

  • ravi hegde

    Let us see .. why do we eat sweets? Understanding the mental machinery that gives us pleasure when we eat sweets is easy. So does it mean that sweets serve some function? ‘Most’ fiction and theater is the same way. Arguably some fiction/theater could be used for utilitarian purposes. That does not mean that there is some high and lofty reason for ‘all’ fiction/theater.

  • ravi hegde

    Why did fiction/theater evolve in the first place. Very easy to see that .. ‘artists’ gifted with higher levels of verbal faculty discovered that they could gain social power .. as cultures achieved more division of labor certain people had more time to learn what entertains people through trial and error .. just like other forms of art ..

    Most Entertainment is highly maladaptive .. their information/utilatarian value is highly suspect .. they are like dangerously addictive sweets .. that have been exquisitely refined through centuries of trail and error ..

  • Firaga

    I don’t see any reason to think that maladaptive (or non-adaptive) behaviors shouldn’t develop and even become widespread in a population that has mitigated a number of serious evolutionary pressures.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Peter, Buck, foragers usually had lots of useful things they could do.

    John, mike, Tim, fiction scenarios seem quite poorly sampled if the purpose is to learn to predict actual events well. Surely something else is going on.

    Bryan, happy to admit that seems so.

    ravi, yes we seem to over-consume sugar and fiction today.

  • http://queersingularity.wordpress.com/ Summerspeaker

    Wait a second, folks. Why are y’all treating “adaptive” as synonymous with “good”? My personal utility has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic goal of reproduction. Knowing what’s evolutionary adaptive and what isn’t tells me how I got here, not where I want to go.

    • Firaga

      Amen brother man.

    • Gene Callahan

      “My personal utility has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic goal of reproduction.”

      Nor does it have anything to do with “the good”!

  • mike shupp

    “… fiction scenarios seem quite poorly sampled if the purpose is to learn to predict actual events well…..”

    Hmmm… I wouldn’t want to argue that imagination is invariably a GOOD source of predictions, just that (a) it provides possible alternatives when facts are lacking and (b) with experience and better reasoning power, we can recognize some alternatives are more likely than others. Tiny amounts of imagination would have given an edge to our forebearers in circumstances where other animals would have only been confused and frustrated. Over time, selection would increased that capability.

  • Bock

    Why do other mammals sleep so much when they arent hunting? probably because its safer to be at home sleeping and dreaming. it is safer for us to sit at home watching movies and playing video games. better than thrill seeking by scoring cocaine and picking up hookers. well, not in my opinion, but its still probably better.

  • http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/ bill benzon

    You need to differentiate between the ability to tell stories, whether about the day’s events, or about things you might do tomorrow or the next day, etc., and the stories that people actual tell as the “deep” stories tell to share the “deep” meanings of their culture. And if you want to think about our ancient ancestors, then you need to look at stories like those they might have told — of course, we have no direct acess to them. But, for example, you might read the Winnebago Trickster stories, as collected by Paul Radin early in the 20th century. These stories are long on outrageous silliness and short on practical utility. Until you seriously consider such stories, your speculations are of doubtful value. I’ve got two oldish posts in which I think about story-telling with such stories in mind:

    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/seven_sacred_words_an_open_letter_to_seven_pinker/

    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/emotion_recollected_in_tranquility/

    Note that these stories are told in public, so signally is involved. But just what is being signaled, that’s the question, no? If one story is about a character who burns his anus (with a hot ember) to punish it and then unexpectedly feels pain, well, why tell such a silly story? Surely it’s not to share the piece of wisdom that poking a hot stick up your butt is going to hurt. There are lots of sacred stories roughly that silly. What’s the point?

    • mjgeddes

      If one story is about a character who burns his anus (with a hot ember) to punish it and then unexpectedly feels pain, well, why tell such a silly story? Surely it’s not to share the piece of wisdom that poking a hot stick up your butt is going to hurt. There are lots of sacred stories roughly that silly. What’s the point?

      Two things to bear in mind:

      Stories are not simulating physical reality, they are simulating social reality.

      Stories are not making predictions, they are making volitional extrapolations – best and worst case illustrations of social ideals. Story telling ia far mode activity, signaling social ideals. Silly stories usually illustrate some moral or social principle in a concrete form.

  • http://twitter.com/XiXiDu XiXiDu

    Fiction is evolutionarily valuable because it allows low-cost experimentation compared to trying things for real.

    Dennis Dutton

  • Drewfus

    The worlds of imagination prevent boredom. Boredom implies excessive brain capacity. A small brain can never be bored, because it cannot generate a state of surplus time in the first place. A bored big brain is ripe for optimization. The noblest thing anyone can do is to keep their brains active, interested, entertained, because cognitive stimulation keeps our big brains, big. It is noble in the sense that the benefits of big brains accrues to society as a whole. The returns on cognitive stimulus are non-excludable.

  • AddaBright

    An interesting aspect of this is not just preventing boredom, as Drewfus commented rightly, but spending time doing things that are other than reality and involve the imagination has mental, emotional, and probably chemical influence on our bodies. This is displayed in the use of such methods in spiritual therapy in New York City, as well as other big cities. This sort of thing isn’t just entertainment. It can heal those who are pained in many different ways and sustain those who are trying to avoid pain or hurt.