This intriguing question has captured the attention of evolutionary scientists extensively over the past few decades (Boyd 2009; Carroll 2012; Gottschall 2012; Sugiyama, 2021). After all, we could expect the human cognitive system, and that of any animal species, to be motivated to seek and accumulate only useful information. And for information to be useful, it must increase the organism’s chances of making accurate predictions about its environment or the consequences of its actions. Given this assumption about cognitive function, it is hard to understand why cognitive systems and, therefore, organisms would be at all interested in explicitly false information, such as that conveyed by imaginary fictions.

Yet, fiction’s reach is expanding, drawing us into narratives set in worlds far removed from any reality we know! For instance, imaginary worlds are experiencing unprecedented success worldwide. TV series like Game of Thrones, The Expanse, or The Witcher, set in environments that do not exist, are breaking audience records. Fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian works that transport us to strange or wonderful universes, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or One Piece, sell by the millions. Video games, such as Zelda, Dofus, or Elden Ring, allowing us to explore virtual worlds with different rules and landscapes from our reality, have become a multi-billion dollar industry.

And these worlds are filled with information irrelevant to us as organisms—like the rules of Quidditch in Harry Potter, the number of Primordial Titans in Attack on Titan, or the spatial structure of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. My point is not to say these fictions offer no real-life lessons. Rather, I emphasize that these fictional worlds contain a weird kind of information: information without real-world anchorage. Acting on it could even have disastrous consequences—imagine, inspired by Superman’s flying abilities, attempting to jump from a building hoping to glide!

We are fully aware that this fictional information is only relevant within its imaginary universe and does not help us better understand our real environment. This distinction between fictional and real information is supported by anthropological studies. For instance, the !Kung, hunter-gatherers of Africa, customarily tell fictional stories about animals around the fire. Yet, these stories do not seem to influence their real-life behavior towards animals, like during hunting. Such fictional information seems to exist in a part of their mind separate from their practical knowledge of real animal behavior (Blurton & Konner, 1976). Thus, even in traditional societies, fiction and reality are distinctly separate. Knowing this, why are we captivated by imaginary universes, when our brain is designed to navigate reality?

Some might think these worlds offer an escape from daily challenges, a refuge. But this hypothesis overlooks a fundamental aspect of human nature: our brain is the result of evolution. It evolved to favor behaviors that increased our chances of survival and reproduction over hundreds of thousands of years. Any cognitive explanation for our fascination with imaginary worlds must be consistent with this idea. In the ancestral environment where our ancestors evolved, constant vigilance was crucial. It is thus highly unlikely that evolution would have favored a tendency to escape reality.

The concept of metaphor might offer a compelling answer to our attraction to imaginary worlds. For example, the army of White Walkers in Game of Thrones could metaphorically represent the dangers of the ecological crisis, prompting us to reflect on the urgency of collective action. Fiction facilitates the elicitation of emotions, surely. However, every metaphor loses in precision what it gains in power of attraction. Directly criticizing the ecological crisis would be more direct and precise than using undead as an allegory.

Besides, some information does not seem to carry such metaphors at all. Take the example of the lava planet Mustafar in Star Wars, located in the Outer Rim. What information can I derive from this knowledge? What analogy could be drawn for our real world? Not much at first glance. In these cases, learning through metaphor seems weak or non-existent. While the metaphorical hypothesis might explain the appeal of some fictions, it cannot cover the richness and diversity of imaginary worlds we love to explore.

So, how do we explain the widespread interest in imaginary worlds? Why would our brain devote precious resources to processing information with no apparent relevance for real-world navigation? These considerations lead us to a series of questions that will guide this article: Why do humans create fictions? Why is exploring imaginary worlds so satisfying? And finally, why does this attraction to imaginary worlds vary from one individual to another?

The Origin of Creative Stories

One possible answer to this question might be to say that this phenomenon emerged recently, after finding cultural means to solve all major adaptive problems. We might be captivated by fictional stories only in developed societies, where most needs are met for most individuals. There is some truth to this proposition: humans in developed societies are more avid consumers of fictions set in imaginary worlds—we will return to this at the end of this article. But it would be incorrect to say that fictions emerge only in these societies.

The Inuit, for example, live in extreme conditions, with little economic surplus and minimal social organization, likely similar to early hunter-gatherer societies. Yet, when several groups gather, one of the first things individuals do is share their sung stories, dancing. These performances, while enjoyable, seem to lack an adaptive function: shouldn’t individuals in such a challenging environment instead devote their limited time and energy to ensuring necessary provisions? In all human societies studied, regardless of their subsistence mode and ecology, similar forms of artistic performance exist that lack obvious practical value. From these observations, we can draw an important conclusion: creativity seems to be valued in all human societies (Nettle, 2010).

Recent studies suggest that our creativity might be an evolutionary adaptation aimed, among other things, at captivating others. These productions indeed resemble superstimuli in non-human animals, that is, phenotypic traits exaggerated by evolution that exploit preexisting preferences, like the peacock’s tail, birds’ mating dances, or the frog’s call. These traits can exploit a preexisting preference (the result of Fisherian selection) but also signal quality (let’s think of the handicap principle: developing a biologically costly trait is a sign of genetic quality). In any case, the goal is to attract attention, often to attract a sexual partner or to signal value within a community (Prum, 2017). The dance of the Inuit and the bird of paradise’s display seem too similar to imagine they have completely uncorrelated evolutionary functions.

There is a notable difference, though. Each story doesn’t evolve through natural selection because humans have evolved the cognitive capacity to invent them. We use our cognitive plasticity to produce what other species evolve biologically. Thus, saying that a fiction—like a story, a movie, or a video game—is a cultural product is the same as saying it is an object shaped through preexisting cognitive mechanisms, such as communication and simulation, exploited by the organism in a flexible way to fulfill another adaptive purpose. From this perspective, fiction can be considered a technology that likely serves the same function as superstimuli in the animal world: that of attracting the attention of other individuals of its species (Dubourg & Baumard, 2022).

According to this hypothesis, creators, whether writers, artists, or filmmakers, may not be aware, at a conscious or intentional level, of the deep motivations driving them to create. This is the case for many other biological adaptations. Take the example of the pleasure derived from sexual intercourse: orgasm evolved to encourage reproduction, but we may seek sexual relations for pleasure, with no conscious goal of procreation. Yet, sex is pleasurable because it enhanced the chances to reproduce during our evolution. Similarly, even if the motivation to create evolved to attract an audience’s attention, we might create for pleasure, or for other more or less conscious reasons, without the explicit goal of capturing the attention of an audience.

With this hypothesis that fictional stories are entertainment technologies, to understand the stories that creators choose to tell, it is essential to examine the preexisting preferences of their audience—just as, to understand the low-frequency sounds produced by a frog, one must examine the preexisting sensory preferences for such sounds in that species. In the case of imaginary worlds, we can look closer to our adaptive preference for new environments.

The Origin of Exploratory Preferences

From an evolutionary perspective, exploring new environments is particularly adaptive for all mobile species. This exploration leads to the discovery of new vital resources, partners, habitats, or new information. For many species across diverse ecologies, the benefits of exploration outweigh the associated costs up to a certain point, such as energy loss, economic costs, risk of injury, and opportunity costs—that is, the costs associated with the activity the organism does not pursue while exploring, namely exploiting the already known environment.

In the field of ethology, the benefit animals derive from exploring has been extensively studied, starting with the pioneering work of Berlyne in the 1950s. In 1966, he published an article in Science titled ‘Curiosity and Exploration: Animals spend much of their time seeking stimuli whose significance raises problems for psychology,’ thus highlighting a quest for information of little practical use in achieving real-world objectives, more recently referred to as “non-instrumental” information. In my view, such observations in non-human animals directly echo the human paradox of being drawn to fictional information, suggesting a continuity between our behavior and that of other species in this pursuit of novelty. Since then, experiments conducted with numerous species have shown that many animals prefer to discover new territories over exploiting familiar environments, even when the latter option leads to a greater reward, and even when the cost of exploration is artificially inflated; monkeys show a preference for visual novelty; rats and pigeons prefer paths that offer multiple choices; various animals, including dolphins, beluga whales, macaques, and orangutans, are more attracted to unknown objects than to familiar ones. All these studies suggest that exploration is intrinsically rewarding, even without direct reward.

In humans, other types of research have emerged to explore a phenomenon remarkably similar to that observed in animals. The field of environmental aesthetics investigates the characteristics of natural environments that are most appealing to humans. Researchers have carried out numerous experimental studies to examine the nature and existence of universal preferences for certain landscapes. A study in 2007 involved showing participants a series of 70 photos of forest landscapes and asking them to rate their appreciation based on various aspects, including the potential for further exploration and overall enjoyment of the landscape. A key finding in this area of research is that landscapes signaling opportunities for exploration, such as a path winding out of sight, are generally preferred. This preference for landscapes suggesting further discovery is rooted in automatic, unconscious, and intuitive responses that participants themselves may not be able to fully articulate (Herzog & Bryce, 2007).

Moreover, recent studies using brain imaging techniques have demonstrated that the dopaminergic system plays a crucial role in the intrinsic motivation to explore. This system, foundational to our reward mechanism, specifically responds to new stimuli that do not offer any primary reward. In the groundbreaking study by Bunzeck and Düzel (2006), the SN/VTA, a key brain region for dopamine release, was examined to understand its response to various types of images: new, relevant, negative, and familiar ones. The pivotal finding was that new images significantly stimulated the SN/VTA, as well as the hippocampus and the striatum, highlighting the critical role of novelty in activating our dopaminergic system. This suggests a biological predisposition towards seeking new information. Essentially, this landmark discovery supports the significant idea that new environments can be evaluated as a source of reward by the cognitive system (all the evidence supporting the previous claims is reviewed in Dubourg & Baumard, 2023).

In the previous section, our hypothesis was as follows: as in the natural world, where some species evolve to respond to the preexisting preferences of their potential partners, story creators have developed a talent for exploiting their audience’s preexisting preferences. We proposed, with my Ph.D. advisor Nicolas Baumard, the following hypothesis: these creators have intuitively understood that one of these many preexisting preferences is a preference for new, unexplored environments. Imaginary worlds, since they emerge from an individual’s creative mind, are worlds we have never explored before, thus activating this preexisting preference. New elements are often highlighted—the fluorescent plants of Pandora in the Avatar poster, the map unlike any known geography in the Game of Thrones opening credits, or the theme of travel to exotic lands in Up, Onward, The Good Dinosaur, Spirited Away, and many other animated films from Pixar, Disney, and Ghibli studios.

The Variability of Exploratory Preferences

Having seen how storytellers exploit our penchant for new environments with imaginary worlds, a question emerges: if this attraction is universal, why are not all humans fascinated by these universes? If evolutionary psychology is relevant to thinking of universal cognitive mechanisms (and explaining the universality or recurrence of certain fictional themes), an evolutionary rationale can also help identify the variability of such cognitive mechanisms, influenced by varying evolutionary costs and benefits. Thus, while we all have a curiosity for new environments, its intensity should vary due to sources of adaptive variability.

At the heart of this variability are innate personality traits, notably Openness to Experience, a trait that varies between individuals but is stable within an individual, and which determines our propensity for curiosity about new environments. This trait, which is partly genetically inherited (by many different genes, including likely the DRD4 gene, which codes for certain dopamine receptors), in turn, influences our desire to explore the unknown (DeYoung, 2011).

Developmental stage also plays a crucial role. Juveniles in many species, including humans, with their insatiable thirst for knowledge, are naturally more inclined to explore (Sumner et al., 2019). This is an adaptive strategy, inherited from evolution: as novice learners, they have everything to gain from probing their environment, supported by parental protection and parent-child resource transfers that together minimize the risks associated with exploration (Gopnik et al., 2017).

Finally, local ecology, or the immediate environment, is also a determining factor. In poor and dangerous environments, the risks associated with exploration are amplified, especially because if exploration yields no results, the individual is left with nothing. Moreover, in situations of resource scarcity, the opportunity costs of exploration increase, as it is more judicious to exploit the immediate environment instead. Conversely, in more abundant and safe environments, these risks decrease. Surrounded by resources, individuals can afford short-term losses to explore, hoping for potential long-term gains (Boon-Falleur et al., 2022).

Thus, if fictions with imaginary worlds are enjoyable because they activate this preference for unknown environments, they should, on average, be more appealing to individuals with higher Openness to Experience, to younger individuals, and to individuals from wealthier backgrounds or more prosperous countries. Using algorithmic and experimental methods, we found support for these predictions (Dubourg et al., 2023).

This hypothesis could also explain the recent rise of imaginary worlds in modern culture. This phenomenon could be related to the increase in resources in our societies—because these worlds activate an innate preference for discovering new environments, a preference that becomes more pronounced in environments more abundant in resources, as we have seen. Thus, as more individuals in developed societies show this increased curiosity for new environments, the audience for imaginary worlds widens. In response, creators are incentivized to design ever more detailed and immersive fictional universes.

The Diversity of Fictional Ingredients

This approach suggests that the imaginary worlds we create and consume are not cultural anomalies, but rather direct manifestations of our cognition. The key to understanding culture, in all its diversity and complexity, is not to delve deeper into the culture itself, but to look towards the psychological mechanisms that generate it, and their intra-species variability (Sperber & Hirschfeld, 2004). Our culture is the product of our cognition, and our cognition is the fruit of evolution. By recognizing this causal chain, we have already begun to grasp the true nature of our creations and entertainments, not as mere distractions, but as windows into how we are wired as biological beings.

Note, in conclusion, that imaginary worlds are but just one feature, one “ingredient”, among many. While we have explored their ability to activate our preference for new environments, numerous other elements of fiction captivate our attention by activating other specialized cognitive mechanisms.

Horror elements, studied by researchers like Coltan Scrivner and Mathias Clasen, play with our deepest fears. For instance, many monsters display traits reminiscent of snakes, spiders, or creatures with sharp fangs and claws—all animals it was essential to avoid during our evolution to stay alive. This fear of predators, a cognitive adaptation, sheds light on why such phobias persist in our time, even though these animals cause very few deaths today.

Love elements in stories, with characters seducing others or falling in love, have been analyzed, for example by Catherine Salmon or Maryanne Fisher, as reflections of our adaptive desires for stable romantic relationships. The feeling of love is also the result of a universal cognitive mechanism and can explain the universal and variable success of love stories.

In all, each fiction can be seen as a culinary recipe, mixing different ingredients to create a unique gustatory experience. Imaginary worlds, elements of fear, love, and many others, are these essential ingredients. Like in cooking, mastering these elements in fiction is a subtle art, where every detail counts to create a captivating work.


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Header Image: Gandalf the Grey by Hossein Diba