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Dec. 2 2014 8:32 AM

Why Do People Get So Emotionally Involved in Books?

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Answer by Marcus Geduld:

Books are machines built specifically to excite your emotions. (Not all books, but almost all fiction and a large amount of nonfiction.) Authors spend their lives studying how to evoke and manipulate emotion and pour all that knowledge into their works. They even do it on the sentence level. Writing teachers urge their students to include some sort of hook in each sentence that will lure readers to the next one.

One common technique is ending chapters with cliffhangers, which excites our instinctual need to know what happens next—instinctual, because learning results was crucial for our ancestors' survival (e.g. when a tribe member ventured into a cave, his friends needed to learn if he emerged safely or got eaten by a tiger inside). Other techniques include putting likable characters in peril, which evokes empathy (another evolved trait), and lacing stories with surprise, which tickles our natural pattern-matching instincts by thwarting our conclusions.

There is also a natural process that changes the brain over time as we get to know a person. It's a large part of the engine behind friendship. If you just meet me once at a party, you'll probably forget me afterward or remember just a couple of funny, interesting, or strange things I said. But if you spend lots of time with me, you'll grow brain structures devoted to simulating me and predicting my behavior.

This happens because we evolved as pack animals—as tribal creatures. Huge portions of our brains are devoted to social processing. There's even evidence to suggest we unconsciously think about other people when our minds seem to be at rest, zoned out, and not thinking about anything. Back in our tribal days, who was sleeping with whom, who was in charge, who was likely to betray you, and who would most likely come to your aid were crucial bits of survival information.

We rely on those social brain structures to make judgments like, "Don't talk to Sally about her mom. It really upsets her," and when we're picking a birthday present for Jonathan. You have a little sim of him in your brain. You mentally give the sim various presents, see which ones most delight it, and that's how you decide what to get for the real-life Jonathan. It's why you feel confident saying, "I knew you'd like this!"

Metaphorically, at least, you can say that someone you've grown used to has inhabited your brain. You hold a copy of him in your head—not an exact copy, but one that's good enough to excite your intellect and emotions. This is why it's so hard to let go of a lover who dumps you or a friend who dies. He's gone but not gone. Your brain is still running his program.

Books, especially long character novels and biographies, can have the same effect. Read Lord of the Rings and you wind up hanging out with Frodo for a long time, long enough for your brain to start simulating him, even when you close the book. You can also create sims by rereading the same book over and over, throughout your life. Lots of people have complex simulations of Harry Potter or Jay Gatsby running in their heads. Once a sim starts running, it's bound to affect you.

You will find yourself wondering what happens to fictional characters after the book is over. On a purely rational level, that makes no sense. After the last page of Nicholas Nickleby, there is no Nicholas Nickleby anymore. There's nothing that happens to him after the book is over. Yet there is, because there's a Nicholas Nickleby program still running in your brain, still predicting what he'll do, still exciting your empathy.

Books offer condensed social information. They are to our tribal and social concerns what candy is to the parts of our brains that crave fruit. We're obsessed by anything social and causal, and books cater to those obsessions.

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Dec. 1 2014 12:56 PM

What Separates Good Sushi From Great Sushi?


Answer by Adam GoldbergA Life Worth Eating:



Assuming that best sushi means places like Sukiyabashi Jiro, Sawada, Mizutani, and Kyubei, here are some things I've noticed that separate the good from the great:



No attitude or pretense. All of the above places are fun to eat at, with the sushi chef actively engaging with customers, ensuring they are having a good time.


Nov. 23 2014 7:07 AM

What’s It Like to Act in Both TV Shows and Movies?

Answer by Danielle Panabaker, actress, foodie, Bruin, dog lover, The FlashSharkPiranha 3-D,The Crazies:

It is an exciting time to be an actor. The industry, alongside technology, is changing rapidly. There are so many sources for content, but in my opinion, television has some of the best, most innovative and challenging material right now. (I feel that way both as an actor and as a consumer. There is just so much amazing television right now!) Television also offers a variety of quality material at all different levels.

Nov. 17 2014 8:56 AM

What’s the Process for Co-Writing a Book With Sen. John McCain?

Answer by John McCain, U.S. senator from Arizona:

Working with Mark Salter has varied a little from the first book to our sixth, but it’s basically the same process. Mark and I discuss and agree on the outline of the book, the subjects we want to write about, the points we want to make, and the message we hope it will convey. When the subject has been my own life and career in the military and in politics, Mark has interviewed me at great length, hours and hours and hours of interviews after work.

Nov. 16 2014 7:14 AM

Why Did the U.S. Lose the Vietnam War?

Answer by Tony Morse, managing partner, Spatial Analysis Group:

Basically because the Vietnamese wanted to win more than the Americans did. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, the Americans were an invading force, and the Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil. Second, the Americans were not willing to make an all-out commitment to win.

Nov. 14 2014 8:08 AM

Was It Possible to Make a Phone Call From Germany to the U.S. in 1946?

Answer by Scott Welch, serial entrepreneur:

For all practical purposes, this would not have been possible.

Let's start with the "phone call" part, because that is the easiest. The first successful transatlantic telephone cable was not laid until 1956, which is a decade later than 1946. Even in 1956, the process of setting up a transatlantic call might take several hours. You would call your local operator, who would transfer you to a "traffic operator." That operator would in turn call the transatlantic operator and get in line for a circuit. You would hang up but wait by the phone. At the other end of the line, the person you wanted to talk to would do the same thing.

Nov. 6 2014 10:02 AM

What Is It Like to Be a Late-Night Talk Show Guest?

Answer by Darby Stanchfield, actress in the ABC drama Scandal:

Jimmy Kimmel is such a nice guy. I have to preface this by saying that I've mainly interacted with him on Jimmy Kimmel Live—the two times I've been on his show, and once last year when I had a brief chat with him and his wife backstage at ABC's NYC Television Upfronts.

Oct. 31 2014 8:06 AM

What Made the U.S. So Powerful?

Answer by Balaji Viswanathan, history buff:

Here is my three-by-three take on the U.S.:


Size: It is the fourth-largest in area and third-largest in population. Countries with greater area than the U.S., such as Russia, have way too much unusable land. The two countries bigger than the U.S. in population, India and China, are still climbing up from the colossal destruction faced in the 19th and  20th centuries and also face severe resource constraints. Russia has still not settled in terms of governance. Brazil and Canada have too few people. That leaves the U.S. in a nice sweet spot.

Oct. 28 2014 10:04 AM

Will Textspeak Ever Replace Standard English?

Answer by Balaji Viswanathan, product manager at a venture-funded startup creating new markets:

When someone writes in standard English, I can use just my eyes to read without any vocalization. My eyes will quickly scan the text and will stop only at unfamiliar words, errors, or new information. This way, we can quickly read at 400 words per minute to focus on just the new information and can be more efficient at what we are doing.

Oct. 22 2014 9:51 AM

What Was It Like to Work at NASA During the Challenger and Columbia Disasters?

Answer by Clayton C. Anderson, U.S. astronaut, retired,

I witnessed both of these disasters live but in very different contexts.

For Challenger, I was not yet an astronaut. I was still an aerospace engineer, working in the mission planning and analysis division. We were devising ways for space shuttles to approach and dock with some of the new (and quite varied) space station configurations (Power Tower, Delta, SOC, etc.). I was seated in a meeting—discussing various aspects of how to safely approach and dock while using minimal fuel—on the sixth floor of NASA Johnson Space Center's Building 1, the administration and management building, on launch morning.