Fantasy and make believe — how our brains interpret fiction

Rhiannon Williams: (Rhiannon reading from her book) There was a terrible shriek and they loosed their arrows. A winged creature swooped through the shadows, its storm painted feathers stirring up the hot air. It was all angles like a wolf dunked in water or a bird scrunched and then twisted back into shape.

Sana Qadar: Rhiannon Williams is a fantasy author and this creature, a “dredretch”, is the product of her wild imagination.

Rhiannon Williams: (continues reading) Its beak was hooked, its scaly talons peeling, leaking shadow.

Sana Qadar: She has spent a lot of her life daydreaming about these make believe worlds and about 18 years committing them to paper.

Rhiannon Williams: And in an instant their arrows turned to ash at her feet (Rhiannon finishes reading).

Sana Qadar: Perhaps the bigger mystery in magic, though, is how an author’s words translate into the minds of individual readers.

Rhiannon Williams: I was given the most beautiful sketchbook by a girl called Nim. She’d just drawn pages and pages of character artwork and little moments from the book, and it blew me away. And it really you could have pulled it from my brain. It was so accurate.

Sana Qadar: How does that happen? And why do we feel so angry when our mental images of books don’t line up with what we see in film adaptations?

David Alais: Now, those that have read the book complain that the movie sort of simplifies the story, but they have different requirements for story and everything. Of course, visually versus in words. But inevitably the film is not the same as the book. However, if you’ve read the book, you’ve got your own visual context.

Sana Qadar: You’re listening to All in the Mind. I’m Sana Qadar. Today, producer Rose Kerr explores our imagination, owns how we can visit fictional worlds using nothing but our words.

Rose Kerr: Like a lot of kids, I was really into reading. I loved escaping into fantasy worlds and going on adventures with characters I would never actually meet. But in my early 20s, I fell out of love with reading. This continued until recently when I picked up a popular fantasy series, a friend had recommended. Suddenly I was able to picture an imaginary world and discuss it like I’d actually been to the places described in the book. This got me thinking, how is it that words can create something I can see in my mind?

Rhiannon Williams: I think writing stories is it’s equal parts, problem solving and dreaming. And I think the way that it works is a certain scene will call for a certain type of so in this case, monsters. So depending on the sort of scenery that I’ve placed my characters in, that’s going to inform, well, in our world, what sort of animal would live in that kind of landscape? Or, you know, if we’re in the air, I know it’s going to have wings. If we’re in a swampy setting, I can picture the sort of things that you would see in a swamp.

Rose Kerr: This is author Rhiannon Williams again.

Rhiannon Williams: So a lot of it is informed by memories and things that I’ve kind of tucked away from throughout my life, from fairy tales and mythology and David Attenborough documentaries. And it sort of your subconscious does the work for you I think. So it could be something from history or mythology or it could be something beautiful. It could be a piece of visual art or a strange encounter when you kind of tuck all of these little things away into a Mary Poppins bag in the back of your mind. And all of those things, they sit back there and they weave themselves together without you even thinking about it. So you can kind of reach in there when you need something and you can pull out this beautiful little sort of quilt square that you can sort of sew into your story.

Rose Kerr: They might be tapping into memories and inspiration from the real world. But the places Rhiannon writes about are truly magical.

Rhiannon Williams: My first series is called the Narroway Trilogy, and the story is about a girl who has to disguise herself as a boy to sneak into a secret organisation of all male monster hunters to rescue her kidnapped brother. And my latest book is called Dusty in the Outwilds. And it is a muddy, magical mystery about a girl called Dusty who goes off on an adventure through a secret jungle full of fantastical creatures to find her mysterious missing aunt.

Rose Kerr: Rhiannon, when you read, how visual is it for you? Are you a very visual reader in general?

Rhiannon Williams: I was actually thinking about this and about the difference between when I read and when I write and if the visual experience is the same and I actually think it’s a little bit different. So I am very visual. I do see a lot, but when I write, it’s much clearer. So I think when I write books I see it in the same way that I see a dream.

Rose Kerr: Specifically with creating monsters, how do you start to create a mythical creature using just words?

Rhiannon Williams: So this I had to do this a lot in my first series because I made up a sort of type of monster, which is basically this underworld creature that’s drawn to the to the surface when acts of terrible evil take place. And I decided that I wanted there to be lots of different kinds of this particular monster. And so I sort of used two different techniques to make them as visually clear as possible. So one thing I did was play around with sounds, and I would mash interesting sounds together until I found a name that I thought sort of gave an idea of perhaps how the monster looked or how it moved. So some examples of this are “barrogaul”, which this creature was sort of a cross between a bear and a sabre toothed tiger. And I think, you know, those sounds “barrogual” kind of give an idea of that creature. Another example would be “giffersnak”, which was a sort of a hovering, crocodile ish type creature. So I had a lot of fun messing around with sounds to find all the names for the different monsters. But the other thing that I would do when I actually do physically describe them is I would lean very heavily on comparisons to familiar creatures, whether they be mythological creatures or something that you would actually encounter in our world.

Rose Kerr: This combination of interesting sounds and characteristics of known animals creates a really vivid imagery of Rhiannon’s monsters. But why are our brains even capable of imagination?

David Alais: We’re highly evolved creatures and we can dominate our environments for good or for bad. And you can’t do that without being able to contemplate different scenarios and imagine the future and visualise outcomes. If I take option A, this will happen, then that, then that or that will be bad. Whereas option B, okay, I’ll do option B, you’ve imagined it and played it out in your mind.

Rose Kerr: This is experimental psychologist, Professor David Alais.

David Alais: Being able to think ahead and envisage different scenarios is is good for, I guess, avoiding dumb mistakes. It’s good for making positive discoveries. It’s great for creativity, creating new ways of doing things.

Rose Kerr: I don’t know about you, but my imagination is very visual. If I’m reading a book, I can see the place and the characters almost as if I was seeing them in the real world in front of my eyes. Part of the reason our brains can create these images is because of the way we process visual input with our eyes.

David Alais: Often when we look out on the world, we’re attending to 2 or 3 things in the image, and a lot of the rest of it isn’t really encoded in any detail. So that’s how you can look somewhere. You look for your keys, you think, Oh, I’ve looked over there, it wasn’t there, and you go looking somewhere else. Actually, maybe they were there. You just didn’t look properly. Lots of things just don’t get encoded. So the world that we take in is as much filled in through guesswork and prediction, we think, as by real analysis of what’s on the retina. The image that enters the eye.

Rose Kerr: This really explains why it’s hard to solve those “spot the difference” puzzles.

David Alais: It’s really easy to prove that in the lab. A classic thing they do is take two photographs. So as I sit here looking at you, there’s speakers and monitors and things. I could take a photograph of that. And then a second one, which is a duplicate, but I’ll remove something like I’ll remove one of the speakers or the monitors and I could flash image A then image B, then image A, then image B, and I could ask you what’s changed? And it might take you 30 seconds to see what’s changed. Now, once you see it, you won’t miss it because you know where it is. But it’s amazing how long it takes people to notice a change. So that proves you’re not fully encoding the whole image, just the bits that caught your attention or that were relevant to what your task was at the time. You know, a vivid image lands on the retina, but only bits of it getting coded. So it’s quite it’s quite vague in a way, what we see.

Rose Kerr: Once that image lands on our retina, it’s not stored like a snapshot or photograph. Key parts get detailed processing and the rest are stored in our memory in segments or parts.

David Alais: There’s a banana there. Bananas are yellow, so yellowness is encoded along with a shape, and they’re separate areas that encode shapes and colours.

Rose Kerr: And so when I’m reading a novel and it’s describing maybe an animal that doesn’t exist in the real world, maybe it’s got the head of a horse and the body of a spider. I mean, I can picture that in my brain right now. How are we able to create an image in our mind that doesn’t exist? Is it a separate part of our brain to when we’re looking through our eyes? How does it work?

David Alais: Well, I guess it’s a similar part of the brain. So there’s a whole visual apparatus in the brain. Mainly the sort of engine room for vision is located right at the back of the brain. And that’s where all the basic visual analyses go on. What we think is going on when you imagine things or visualise things, is that in a way you invert that process. So instead of visual images landing on the retina and going up to that back part of the brain and then forward, you start at the top, you start at the forward end and you start projecting back down what you want to imagine, and it tends to activate the same visual hardware as if the information was coming up from the eyes. It’s just from a different direction. So we say top down activation of vision. That would be imagination and imaging visualising, and then bottom up would be actually seeing the external world.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. Okay. So when you see something in real life, say when a child goes to the zoo and they see a penguin for the first time, they’re taking in the elements and they’ll see the penguin and their brain is looking at the pieces and putting it together. Whereas it’s the opposite when you imagine?

David Alais: Well, yeah. So back to your question about what was it, the spider –

Rose Kerr: The horse’s head with the spider’s body.

David Alais: There’s of course memories are a big part of this. So we’ve all had experiences and the brain is this incredibly plastic thing that records everything you’ve seen and experienced. And, you know, you see an image and you remember it. You can see different neurones in our memory system, sort of strengthen and reweight each other to sort of encode what you’ve seen. And we store literally thousands, millions of of visual concepts in our minds that way. And so you’re triggering memories when you’re imagining to some extent, and I guess you can imagine novel things that you’ve never seen, partly because of the way the brain encodes vision. So we have separate specialised parts of the visual system that will encode colour and shape and movement and orientation of lines and all that sort of thing. And so the image is not just a global thing, it’s actually made up of fragments that then get put back together. But fortunately for our ability to imagine and visualise a story, a fantasy novel, all those elements are stored separately. So we could with our top down sort of, you know, trawling up of these elements, put them together in novel ways that create completely novel images. So that’s how you can imagine something new.

Rose Kerr: So with my horse, with the body of a spider example, you’re probably going to picture the head of a horse you’ve seen before and the body of a spider you’ve seen before. A bit like a weird collage of memories.

David Alais: And that, of course, leads to another problem. How does the brain put it all back together again? There’s a huge area of neuroscience on how elements get put back together into, you know, a coherent image. But it can be done. And there’s various theories on how that happens. But I think the fact that it’s fragmented from the beginning means you can reassemble it in novel ways.

Rose Kerr: And so are we just collecting all of those elements and building blocks through our experiences in life? Is that the idea?

David Alais: Yeah. So pretty much every every day your brain is reshaping itself, tuning up, recording memories of the world. So you know what you saw this morning or what you had on your plate for breakfast or it’s an image. It’s in your mind. You can remember it. If you can remember it, it’s because it’s represented in your brain someway and to some extent, virtually everything that you experience will be encoded somewhere in your brain. Now it might be weakly encoded and sometimes we forget things, but it might be vividly encoded and you’ll never forget it. So on that continuum of, you know, maybe weakly or strongly encoded, pretty much everything you experience is in there and is therefore, you know, an element that you can put together in a novel way if you are a skilled imaginer. It’s a bit like a kid playing with a box of Lego. You can put the pieces together to create novel things, and in a way that’s what imagination is doing because everything is stored separately. You can put it together in different ways.

Rose Kerr: This helps explain why if you give people the same book, everyone will have a different idea of what the characters and world looks like.

Rhiannon Williams: You as the author you guide. But there’s only so much you can do really to paint the picture. And so it’s up to the reader and their own imagination to see it, how they’re going to see it. So it’s going to look a little bit different to everyone. The characters are going to look different, the world’s going to look different. And I think that that is just the coolest thing.

David Alais: Well, I suppose the brain is this sort of repository of stored experience, right? So we can imagine every reader comes to a book with a different, you know, from a different path. They’ve all seen different things. And so they’ve got different things at their disposal to put together. There’s I mean, imagining is also let’s not forget, it’s not just a visual image. There is emotion and all sorts of things. And so people have different emotional experiences. So how you interpret it will be also reflecting your own experience and, you know, interpreting key elements of the story in different ways leads to all different kinds of imagery, of course.

Rose Kerr: And I know when often a popular book series will get adapted into, say, a movie. People can have these really visceral reactions when the representation on screen isn’t necessarily the same as what they imagined in their minds. Is that why they react like that?

David Alais: That can cause really strong reactions and people can’t. You know, there’s a bit of a debate, you know, should you read a book first or see the movie first? Now, those that have read the book complain that the movie sort of simplifies the story, but they have different sort of requirements for story and everything. Of course, visually versus in words. But inevitably the film’s not the same as the book. However, if you’ve read the book, you’ve got your own visual context and it’ll be unique, as we’ve just said, for everybody. And then you go and watch the movie and it’s the director’s vision and it may not be yours. You’ve already got this vivid scenery and so forth, and if it doesn’t match, that can be quite a clash. So, you know, there’s pros and cons. Often stories are more nuanced than films, but if you see the film first and you’re not a vivid imaginer, you’ll probably have a ready made visual context to put it in, which could be handy.

Rose Kerr: For Rhiannon, she’s been dreaming of the world she’s created for years. She’s got first hand experience seeing that world interpreted by other people. I noticed the covers of the books have beautiful illustrations. When you sent that off to the illustrator, what was the experience like seeing those for the first time?

Rhiannon Williams: Any kind of artwork that depicts my characters or scenes from the story is just the most exciting thing to see. I think I’m probably a relatively easy author to work with because I just get delighted by by anything when it comes to illustrators, I think a lot of the time you you are sent an image that is a little bit different to the way that you picture it in your head. But I really don’t mind that because again, like I expect every reader to see things a little differently. So it’s inevitable that the illustrator is going to see it a little differently too. And as long as I think it really represents the book well and and has the the spirit of the story, then I’m totally fine with it. But it’s only when if the illustrations are sort of conflicting with the text, that’s the only time that I’ll ever say, Oh, I think maybe we have to change this just because it’s not how it’s described here. But when when kids draw fanart, that is just the most wonderful thing. And I am always blown away by how accurate those depictions are to the characters that I wrote, because I really don’t give my characters that much description on the page. My main characters maybe get a little bit more than than the other ones, but it’s not going much further than hair and eye colour and maybe height. But I think it’s the personalities seem to shine through into the artwork and that’s why the character looks so familiar to me. They really look like my character. I’ve I was given the most beautiful sketchbook by a girl called Nim. She’d just drawn pages and pages of character artwork and little moments from the book, and it blew me away. And it really you could have pulled it from my brain. It was so accurate.

Rose Kerr: Touching on that topic of children and their imaginations. If children have had fewer experiences so they’ve had less of those building blocks, they’ve maybe not seen as many things as an adult has when they’re reading a book or hearing a description. How were they able to have such amazing imaginations when they don’t have all those little building blocks and experiences to build on?

David Alais: I’d say two things in response to that. One is that often a story or any sort of work of art or story or anything often comes down to just a central theme that seems to be transcendent. So I suppose a child can pick up the message without having to get all the nuanced detail. Secondly, I’d say that, you know, we shouldn’t underestimate how much a kid has seen every day of its life. How old are we talking if the kid’s, you know, 3 or 4 old enough to be understanding and imagining stories, they’ve seen countless millions of images. So I suppose the building blocks are there. And, you know, the power of a story is often in the emotion. And probably that’s just as powerful as your ability to imagine. Actually, that age thing is interesting, comparing kids with adults. So the mind of the child is much more exploratory than an adult mind. So through development, we talk about this balance shifting between exploration. When you’re a kid, your mind you know how kids can be totally random and notice the weirdest things and they’re quite content with make believe games holding a banana and it’s a telephone or whatever. So they’re quite exploratory and kind of lateral and random. And as you get trained and get older, you end up moving from exploration to exploitation, which is, you know what you know, and you use it to achieve goals. And I think, you know, through through education and you get to adulthood, it might just be a normal part of of development. But certainly schooling probably exacerbates it. You just get more linear and locked into ways of doing things. And we were talking about pathways in the brain. Of course, the more these pathways are activated, the stronger they get, so they become the dominant way of thinking. So you kind of get locked into your own what you know is what you exploit, whereas a kid will be much more exploratory.

Rhiannon Williams: As a kid, your imagination is a superpower. You can build a world to play a game in on your own and you can build it so that it’s so real that you can disappear into it for hours. And the other very cool part about that is that you can share it with someone. So I remember playing with my sisters and my friends and it was like we were telling each other a story, but it was sort of the same story and we would do it verbally. We would actually sort of share what we were seeing and what we were doing and almost building a narrative through this game. And and I remember it being so real. It’s one of the saddest things is when you get to the age where you stop playing those games and you sort of it fades out without you really realising it. And I think I was quite old. I actually think it was my first year in high school when I sort of realised that no one really wanted to play those games with me anymore and I was kind of embarrassed to ask. But one of my friends at school, she, she secretly admitted to me that she still played mermaids with her best friend in the pool. And I was so excited and I thought because I yeah, I thought there was no one left who would want to do that with me. But I don’t really remember if I ever went through with playing mermaids with them. I have a feeling that I that it never really happened. And it’s like you get to this point in your life where you’ve lost the ability to turn yourself into a mermaid. For me, I think writing books is kind of the closest thing to doing to doing that. You know, creating this world, creating this narrative within this world, and then sharing that with other people and having them be able to see it too.

Rose Kerr: When I’m reading a particularly engaging book, it’s more than just seeing the world. I can feel what the characters are experiencing. Sometimes I’ll even read faster when the characters in a battle or finally discovering a secret. So why do written words make us feel anxious, excited and scared? In your book we’ve touched on them having adventurous themes and exploring new worlds, and I’m sure the characters go through some really courageous moments when they’re going through something emotional. How does that feel to write and how do you translate that into words that presumably the reader is then going to feel as well?

Rhiannon Williams: I get really swept up in the emotion when I’m writing it. And again, this is sometimes something that comes in a slightly later draft, but when you go back in and you layer in the emotion, I really feel it physically in my own body. And but weirdly, because a lot of authors will tell you they cry when they write their big emotional scenes. And I don’t do that. But I have cried in like triumphant moments. So those like when you’re watching a film, I’m a real sucker for the the here comes the cavalry moment, you know, when all is lost and then suddenly, you know, the horses crest the hill and come down and then the battle is won. So any moment like that in anything will always make me cry. And I’ve got a couple of those moments in my books and it always, always makes me cry. I mean, I hope that that’s, you know, the experience for the reader as well. But I think I think you can sort of trust that if it’s the experience for you, it’s going to hit at least some people in the same way. But I think for sort of cueing that emotionally, physical descriptions of emotion are very helpful. So describing, yeah, where and how the character feels that in their body. I think it’s a sort of a universal language in a way.

David Alais: So why a story so compelling? I think one of the things that happens is there’s a part of our brain that actually called the mirror neurone system that is meant to be activated when we imagine people in scenarios. So we kind of almost imagine a passive playing out in our mind of what the characters are doing. And then of course, things that are happening always happen in some kind of context. They happen somewhere. So we imagine the context. There’s literature saying this mirror neurone system is important for empathy and other emotional responses. So once you start to physically imagine being that person, it triggers emotions and all sorts of reactions like that. So suddenly you go from just some words on a page, or it might be an oral story to imitating that, acting it out, to feeling the emotions, putting it in context. So it becomes this really multi-dimensional thing that has incredible power, much more power than just being told the moral of the story.

Rose Kerr: Are there any messages or takeaways that you hope readers get from your books, and what’s the power of doing that through fiction?

Rhiannon Williams: There are so many things that I hope people take away and there are so many things that you tuck in, you know, as you write everything that is sort of important to you in your own sort of personal values, they seep into the work. But the main thing that I really want is so when I used to read books when I was a kid, I used to love those stories so much that I felt it sort of physically it physically hurt that they weren’t real, that I couldn’t go into that world and I couldn’t meet those characters and I couldn’t do those things. And I, I would read and reread and reread because I just loved entering those worlds so much. And that is what I want to provide for readers because I think as well, I think having that experience, particularly when you’re a kid, it’s going to turn you into a reader for life because you’re going to be chasing that feeling forever. And I think that’s the most important thing. I mean, obviously kids books are really important for literacy and helping kids understand the world and understand themselves. And there’s a million reasons why kids books are important. But the main thing I think is that it does it turns them into readers for life. If you write a book that a kid loves, then they will continue to read books forever. I think I I would like to offer comfort and escape more than anything. And yeah, just that feeling, that feeling of intense love. I would love I would love to give that to another young reader.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. So true. I’ve definitely mourned the end of books. Even like now as an adult, you feel like you’re losing a friend.

Rhiannon Williams: Yeah, it’s the books that you never want to end. But that’s also why I’m a rereader I think experiencing stories over and over again. You get so much more out of them because this is something as well. Talking about description, I know that a lot of adult readers skim description when they read the book and I realised that I skim description a little bit on my first read, but on my second read, I don’t because I’m I’m really invested. I think on your first read, you’re sometimes you’re battling losing interest a little bit and you really want to find out what happens at the end. And so it’s a different reading experience. But when you reread, you obviously care about the characters because otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in reading about them again. And you find the story fascinating enough that you want to experience it again. So you read much more closely on a second read. And I think the same kind of goes for TV and movies as well. I’m a I’m a big repeater. I always I find things I love and then I do them over and over again.

Sana Qadar: That is children’s fantasy author Rhiannon Williams. And you also heard from Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney. That’s it for All in the Mind this week. This episode was reported and produced by Rose Kerr and sound engineer Ann-Marie Debettencor. I’m Sana Qadar. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: