Decades ago, after reading a lot of “self-help” psychological literature, I concluded that much of the advice it offered could be condensed into a single key principle, which I summarized as: You are what you dwell upon.
Recently, I read news of a fascinating study that appears to confirm this truth in an unusual way. It suggests that when we “lose ourselves” in the world of a fictional hero, we actually may be on the path to personal change.
From the news release announcing the study:
When you “lose yourself” inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own — a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”What is denigrated too often as hero-worship may not be an adolescent neurosis at all, but an important, even essential, component of self-improvement.
They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.
One of their most intriguing findings however, was that “Experience-taking doesn’t happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading,” [research leader Geoff] Kaufman said. In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.
“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said. “You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”
We all know, introspectively, the inspirational power of fiction, but this study appears to provide empirical confirmation of it. I found their experiment with the mirror particularly intriguing, as a window on how reading fiction may facilitate actual personal change. Perhaps we must lose ourselves by entering the world of — and walking in the shoes of — some model character, before we can “replace” our current self with a new and better one. If so, then what is denigrated too often as hero-worship may not be an adolescent neurosis at all, but an important, even essential, component of self-improvement.
A couple years ago, I discussed how heroic fiction shaped my own character development. I wrote, in part:
Growing up in a dying mill town in western Pennsylvania was an oppressive experience. And in our blue-collar home, there were few windows that opened to a world of wider possibilities.
That wasn’t my parents’ fault. Their lives had been brutally tough, their own horizons painfully limited. My dad was born on a nearby farm and never made it to high school. For many years, he worked with his hands — stone mason, soldier in WWII, carpenter, railroad brakeman. Mom never finished school, either. She displayed early signs of musical talent, but there was no money for piano lessons. She spent her young adulthood on the assembly line at the “the pottery” — the local china factory.
After the war, they met, married, and settled in a tiny ranch house. Later, they bought and ran a local tavern, to help put my brother and me through college. They worked like mules; there was little time for anything else. So, culture was an unknown. There were no books in our house. We didn’t go to plays or concerts. The local radio stations featured farm reports and Patsy Cline.
Like most parents of that generation, they desperately wanted their kids to have more than they did, so they valued education. But the local offerings were limited. Each morning, I rode an old yellow bus with bad shocks to a school where the biggest club was the Future Farmers of America. I was eternally lucky that the school had a quirky librarian with political passions, an art teacher who played classical recordings during class, and an unforgettable history teacher who opened my mind to the world of ideas.I can’t tell you how important such experiences were to a lonely little kid with a big imagination, growing up in that four-room ranch house.
But the cultural inspiration of my youth came from the TV action heroes of the 1950s.
As a toddler, I became addicted to TV. Mom would park me in my little walker in front of our massive Philco. She told me that somehow I figured out when my favorite shows would come on, and I would scoot the whole walker forward to change the channels. That small screen introduced me to the concept of vigilante heroes — appropriately, in black and white.
My earliest imprinted images of manhood included the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Robin Hood, the Range Rider, Hopalong Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, “Lash” LaRue, “Cheyenne,” and Tarzan. There was a Saturday serial cliffhanger featuring the adventures of an amazing guy with a “jet pack” on his back, “Commando Cody.” Meanwhile, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club served up a regular diet of Zorro and Davy Crockett.
And then there was Superman. Boy, did I love Superman.
Later, I discovered other comic-book heroes — vigilantes all. There was Batman (still my favorite), the Flash, the Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Phantom, and Spider-Man. Novels — especially science fiction and action thrillers — came along later, during adolescence.
I can’t tell you how important such experiences were to a lonely little kid with a big imagination, growing up in that four-room ranch house. Those heroes told me that life didn’t have to be a series of boring, empty routines. That there was more to the world than the claustrophobic rural township where I grew up. That the universe was a huge place filled with adventure and romance, open to infinite, exciting possibilities.
But, most importantly, that you always had to stand up for justice.
Like millions of other kids from that era, I took all this very seriously.
I still do.
In college, I fell in love with the heroic action thrillers of writers like Alistair MacLean, Mickey Spillane, Desmond Bagley, Donald Hamilton, and Don Pendleton. My current favorites include Lee Child, Stephen Hunter, Robert Crais, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Jack Higgins, Nelson DeMille, and Robert B. Parker. Significantly, most of their stories feature lone-wolf, “vigilante”-type heroes.
Of all genres of popular fiction, action thrillers are my favorite, because they present an extravagant, open-ended, no-limits vision of human potential. Just as TV, film, and comic-book heroes can spark passion and idealism in children, thrillers can keep the fires of that passion and idealism burning in adults — at least, in those adults who have not surrendered to cynicism.
In 2011, I wrote and published my own debut novel, HUNTER: A Thriller, which went on to become a national bestseller. It is the first in a projected series of fast-paced, romantic crime thrillers that dramatize individualist philosophical perspectives on controversial current issues.
But more importantly, I created its tough-guy hero — a “philosophical vigilante” named Dylan Lee Hunter — to be an idealized model of individualist values.
Those who know me from nearly half a century of writing nonfiction about politics and philosophy may wonder: Why have I rebooted my career to become a thriller writer? Some may believe it’s a step down: that “philosophical” writing is far more important and has much greater impact on the world — assuming that is my primary goal.
In response, I recall what Ayn Rand wrote in The Romantic Manifesto about how to communicate moral ideas and ideals most effectively:
An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions... Hence, the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussions of ethics...
Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
Observe that every religion has a mythology — a dramatized concretization of its moral code embodied in the figures of men who are its ultimate product... This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder. (“The Psycho-Epistemology of Art”)
Even so, some might dismiss the thriller genre, specifically, as the literary equivalent of junk food. How could such “popular escapism” impart important ideals to readers?
Well, as far as escapism goes, all works of fiction — including those with literary pretensions — transport the reader into imaginary worlds. Certainly, a mental journey into an imaginary world can offer a few hours’ reprieve from boring routines and unhappiness, if such happens to be your chronic state. Call that an escape, if you will.
However, for the ambitious soul, fiction offers more than an escape: It provides road maps and fuel to set out on one’s own real-life journey to a different, better place. And, as the Ohio State study appears to confirm, it can provide the morally ambitious soul with even more: the inspiration, insights, and examples to become a different, better person.
It also implies the critical importance of what we choose each day to feed to our souls — not only in terms of art, but also in terms of experiences and personal associations.
Excuse-makers who minimize personal responsibility may claim that a person who does something bad was “influenced by his peers.” But we choose the influential company that we keep. Likewise, we also choose the influential company that we keep when we pick up a novel or watch a film.
If “you are what you dwell upon,” then what should you choose to dwell upon?
Those who craft heroic, visionary fiction present us models of what individuals should aspire to become. During challenging times, in life and in history, what work could possibly be more important, or intellectually meaningful, than that?
A long-time author of nonfiction books, essays, and reviews, Robert Bidinotto is author of HUNTER, which became the number-one Kindle bestseller in “Mysteries and Thrillers” and a Wall Street Journal “Top Ten Fiction Ebook.” HUNTER is available at Amazon.com in print and in a Kindle ebook edition. It is also available in a new audiobook edition from Audible.com, from Amazon.com, and from iTunes. Bidinotto currently is at work on the second in the Dylan Hunter thriller series, BAD DEEDS. You can follow him on his blog, “The Vigilante Author,” and on Facebook.