When psychologist and author Keith Oatley writes his next novel, he can make sure that each description of a scene includes three key elements – to better help the reader create a vivid mental image. Not one element; that would be forgettable. Not six elements; that might be boring.He could have learned this from Anton Chekhov, master of the short story. Oatley, a great admirer of the Russian writer, recalls one Chekhov story that includes a description of a pond under snow. With a factory. Across from a village.
In fact, Oatley learned the lesson from a study that used MRI scans to show brain activity in readers: The area of the brain used to create a mental image was best activated when descriptive passages used three elements.
Contrary to the notion that art merely copies life, Oatley's argument is that a movie, play, story, poem or novel creates a mental model in which readers can try out ideas about themselves and others.
For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.“You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person,” he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, “Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind.”The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.