Living Vicariously

I have noticed that while my daily tarot card pick seldom reflects what I am feeling or doing (possibly because I am not feeling or doing much of anything), it sometimes reflects the situation of someone I’ve been talking to, especially if I empathize with them. Just as often, the card seems to reflect the situation of a character in a book I’m reading.

To the extent that the tarot has meaning, and to the extent that I am not reaching far afield to find any sort of meaning in the card, this does seem to indicate that our brains can interpret a fictional world and a fictional experience as being as real as a real-life experience.

Research does tend to corroborate this idea — people who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t read. They think better, connect to new ideas quicker, are more able to comprehend other people’s motivations, can understand and accept more easily the idea that others hold beliefs that are different from one’s own.

When testing readers to see what happens to their brains, scientists have recorded noticeable changes in brain chemistry that seem to bear out the idea that the experiences in fiction are in some way interpreted as real. This makes sense when you consider that a story we read becomes a memory as does everything else we’ve ever experienced, so when the brain isn’t focused on daily tasks — or maybe when it is — it plumbs our memories for clues about what worked, what didn’t, and how to proceed.

There are many things I have done in a fictional world, whether one I created or someone else did, that I would never be able to (and certainly wouldn’t want to) experience in real life, such as be a spy in a hostile country, become an assassin or a victim of an assassin, be a psychic, deal with drug problems.

From a young age, long before most kids started experiencing with drugs and alcohol and smoking, I’d developed a fear of addiction because of the books I’d read (though now, I can’t imagine what I was reading when I was a child to give me these ideas), and so I abstained even when pressured and ridiculed. I never understood how people could be so blasé about experimenting. In fact, I was shocked at people’s ignorance when all the class-action lawsuits dealing with tobacco companies showed people the dangers of smoking. How could they not know? It seemed so obvious to me. Apparently, one doesn’t have to personally go through the trauma of addiction to understand how devastating it can be.

This connection between fiction and real memories makes me wonder what I will remember when I get old. Will I remember my life or one of the tens of thousands of other lives I’ve lived vicariously? And will it matter?


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

6 Responses to “Living Vicariously”

  1. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    I think we remembers the lives that had the strongest influences on us, what we believe in general, and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

  2. Estragon Says:

    Ultimately, all we experience, be it in “real” life or as a fiction, gets interpreted and encoded in our minds. Depending on our mood, imagination, and the writer, it’s possible (for me, at least) for a fictional event to be interpreted and encoded nearly as vividly as the real thing. A lot is utterly forgettable dreck though.

    Similarly, the real thing can seem surreal or be misperceived as something it isn’t. A few of us have a talent for remembering some things in perfect detail (photographic memory, for example), but I doubt any of us can remember all the senses involved in every experience. Even “real” life is a sort of fiction – based on reality (like a spy novel might be), but not quite exactly real. As with fiction, much of real life is mundane and forgettable.

    What will I remember years hence? Probably something like a distorted highlights reel with a mix of fiction and “real” life. I hope so, anyway. The alternative is likely one of the types of dementia one suffers in old age, in which the distinction between the two can blur beyond recognition.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I certainly agree that much of fiction is drek. I’d sure hate to have that embedded in my brain pan! Luckily for me, those books are forgotten as soon as I close the covers. Very few books seem to make a lasting impression.

      I used to be able to remember almost everything, but not anymore. Not that it matters. As you say, much of real life is mundane and forgettable. And sometimes I’m not sure if what I remember is accurate or is some past fictional foray. It’s a good thing I try just to focus on today.

  3. Uthayanan Says:

    On reading of this blog I asked a question « what is real in french »
    I got some way of thinking from one of the french radio.
    I don’t know how it is related to your subject but still interesting in French.
    Approximately french to English translation :
    Certain words, like “time”, “space”, “void”, “matter”, or even “real” or “reality”, belong at the same time to the discourses of philosophers and physicists. If physics and philosophy are indeed two disciplines that it is important to distinguish, it is necessary, however, to make them discuss on the concepts which they share.
    Take the real, for example. When they talk about it, are physicists and philosophers talking about the same thing? If the answer to this question is ‘no’, why are they using the same word? If the answer is “yes”, that is, if they are indeed talking about the same thing, are they saying the same thing? Undoubtedly not: Heidegger and Einstein hold about the real things which hardly resemble each other. But if they don’t say the same thing, who do we give credit to, physicists or philosophers? This shows that there is a certain urgency to enter into a struggle with the language, and for everyone to specify what they are talking about when they use such and such a word.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That is a really interesting point about “real” meaning different things to philosophers and physicists or other scientists.

      I wonder if it is possible to find (or create) a word that would distinguish the different concepts people see in the word ‘real.”

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