Music can move us to tears. A beautiful view can take our breath away. A chase scene in a film can make us sweat. The amount of things we humans find compelling (from religions to cartoons) is almost innumerable, but cognitive scientist Jim Davies tells us that they all share similar qualities, which he outlines as a unified ‘theory of compellingness’ in his new book, Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
It is noon on a Saturday but Jim Davies has drawn a healthy crowd made up of fans of popular science and Jim’s own students, who come outfitted in black shirts emblazoned with “Carleton Cognitive Science” on the back. It is clear that they already find their professor to be compelling, and they have formed something of a cheering squad for him.
Davies is introduced by poet Stephen Brockwell, who details his somewhat unique academic background: a B.A. in philosophy, an M.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in computer science. All of his academic work has led him to become an associate professor of Cognitive Science at Carleton University and the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory here in Ottawa. He is a thin, tall man who is deeply aware of his thinness and height, as evidenced by several jokes at his own expense.
His idea that the things we find compelling share common qualities has roots in evolutionary biology and psychology, and he uses gossip as an example. Gossip, Davies explains, is universal and it is almost always correct. Psychologists call gossip ‘strategic knowledge,’ because we humans live in social environments and gossip helps us to form bonds with other humans. Gossip knits us together, and it is undeniably compelling. Another example Davies explained to the crowd had to do with Finding Nemo, a children’s film that made him cry. It is a movie about an animated fish, and we are moved to tears by Nemo’s struggle. Why? Davies tells us it is a bit like an optical illusion. Cognitive science explains that when we see films, we forget that what we are seeing isn’t real, and our emotional reaction becomes real. Our minds don’t know the difference between fiction and reality.
It is the same reason that a vast majority of paintings feature people. And why religions are largely based on anthropomorphized beings who seem to know everything a veteran gossip would know. Religions, books, music, car crashes, celebrity gossip, myths, and alien abductions are all compelling to us because they deal with human drama.
Davies stops short of telling us what exactly makes something compelling (no matter how compelling you are, if you give away too much, no one will want to read the book), inviting us to read Riveted for a full outline of his theory, but he does an excellent job of igniting curiosity and conversation. He merely hints at his idea of a “psychological immune system,” which, he hopes, the average person would develop to combat against compellingness. A sort of litmus test to be employed when watching the news or reading an article (“I believe this, but why do I believe it”).
While we may have to read more to gain a deeper understanding of Davies’ theory, judging by his rapt audience, and perhaps against his own wishes, he is compelling.