Psychology with Dr. Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Dr. Jennifer Lynn Barnes – B.A. Cognitive Science (Yale); Ph.D Psychology (Yale)

Short bio: An assistant professor at OU since August 2012, Dr. Jennifer Barnes is a native of Tulsa and a graduate of Holland Hall High School. After graduation, she earned a B.A. in Cognitive Science and a doctorate in Psychology, both from Yale University. Her research program is focused on the cognitive science of fiction: why are human beings drawn so strongly to stories that are not real? In addition to being a scientific researcher, Dr. Barnes is a professional novelist and screenwriter, with over a dozen young adult fiction books published.

I was genuinely interested in hearing from her when I read the email featuring our speakers. I was intrigued about the research surrounding fictional work because I am a huge fan of fiction. Fiction encompasses many different forms, and I have been exposed to many from popular television, novels,  and movies to specific niches such as anime, manga, and gaming. The way people respond to fiction is a unique form of communication, imagination, and interaction.

One of the things that Dr. Barnes mention was how people unconsciously fill in details to any type of fiction. In other words, people do not “read” or “watch” the same story despite the same text, the same characters, and the same setting. People unconsciously fill in little details through imagination that really makes a unique story for each individual person. It’s daunting to imagine that the human mind has that capability and not many people are aware of it.

Another crazy thing mentioned by Dr. Barnes was about a survey asking individuals if their favorite fictional character had been written to die and a random person nearby die. The question of the experiment was, “Which one will the individual will be sadder about?” The outcome was women were generally favored to be sadder about their fictional character than an actual random person. For men, the outcome was even. Therefore, no group of men or women was sadder for the actual person than the fictional one. It is amazing that psychologically many individuals feel connected to a fictional character as if they were an actual person and become emotionally distressed if the character was written off.

What is more amazing is people are unconsciously writing next chapter of the story, the next detail, and the eventual finale even though the readers or viewers are not the actual writers or authors. A crazy phenomenon happens when a person finishes a work of fiction is he or she becomes mad at the author for writing an unwanted event like death or love or people go crazy and imagine new stories inspired by that fictional work (a similar phenomenon to daydreaming.) This leads to the idea of fandom or fanfiction. I know that this is especially true in manga/anime due to the short lifespan of each work. People generally expand on the story to give it new life and etc. A fanfiction typically the story that wasn’t told or didn’t occured, and I generally felt warmth when hearing or reading about it. Therefore, I want to analyze and understand why that’s happening and thus the psychology of fanfiction is an interest if I want to do research with her. The amount of fanfiction that exists is astronomical; the data is there, and it would be neat to analyze and experience all of it.

Also, I was genuinely impressed when she mentioned that she has had a duel career for most of her life. She pursued writing when she was in high school, and was a hopeful lawyer when entering Yale. However, she entered into research when a roommate came back to the dorms late one night. Her roommate was researching about the cognition in monkeys. Intrigued, Dr. Barnes decided to enter the research group to study monkeys, and she had a blast at studying monkeys and decided to pursue a research career instead of law school. Cognitive Science at Yale was an unique degree where it was a mixture of psychology, science, and philosophy. Dr. Barnes continue to do research with monkeys throughout her undergraduate, but she needed to spend a year outside of Yale after graduation in order to apply to Yale’s graduate school. Dr. Barnes applied for the Fulbright (p.s. I will be too my Senior year) program that led to her studies about autism in the United Kingdom. Afterwards, she returned to Yale to pursue her doctorate in Psychology. During this time, she found out she wanted to study people instead of monkeys. An unexpected turn of event had occurred and another professor, who was doing something similar to her interests, decided to take Dr. Barnes as a graduate student to study the research of the psychology of fiction. Afterwards, the rest was history.

If you want to learn more, check out her website!