I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones for the who-knows-how-manyieth time. And in the process, mainly while the credits roll or I’m fast forwarding through the parts that I don’t enjoy as much, I have been wondering why I watch this, why it is so enthralling, and why I can watch it for the who-knows-how-manyieth time and still find it enthralling.
In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief:
“My endeavours” he wrote, “should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not a suspension of disbelief. And it is not willing. There is nothing of choice about it. We are enthralled - or we have enthralled ourselves. But it is not magic - it is neurology that captures us.
I believe stories work because of the imperative of belief. Deep down in the animal brain (which, let’s be honest, is almost all of it), there is an inability to understand that stories, whether on the page or on the screen, are not real. In some small part of the brain, we know, but we can’t overcome the other part. Or we forget about it as the story unfolds.
Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore. There is some understanding that stories, real or not we can’t say, are not happening to us. This gives us the safety to enjoy, to experience the terror and heartbreak and grandeur without the need to run to safety.
One day, far in the future, I imagine, we or our descendants, or the descendants of whatever species are left, will lose this disability, this imperative to believe will disappear. Brains will automatically distinguish between what is real and what is not. Stories, all of them, will fail.
These lucky creatures, unable to see the world other than it is, will not understand the power our stories held over us. And they will wonder in disbelief why we writers spent our lives creating them.