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The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person's ignorance to promote suspension of disbelief.
The phrase "suspension of disbelief" came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the burden was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. This might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. These fictional premises may also lend to the engagement of the mind and perhaps proposition of thoughts, ideas, art and theories.
Suspension of disbelief is often an essential element for a magic act or a circus sideshow act. For example, an audience is not expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla in order to enjoy the performance.
According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling. With any film, the viewer has to ignore the reality that they are viewing a two-dimensional moving image on a screen and temporarily accept it as reality in order to be entertained. Black-and-white films provide an obvious early example that audiences are willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how unreal the images appear, for the sake of entertainment. With the exception of totally color blind people, no person viewing these films sees the real world without color, but they are still willing to suspend disbelief and accept the images in order to be entertained. Suspension of disbelief is also supposed to be essential for the enjoyment of many films and television shows involving complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly unrealistic plots, characterizations, etc.
Coleridge coined the phrase in his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, in the context of the creation and reading of poetry. Chapter XIV describes the preparations with Wordsworth for their revolutionary collaboration Lyrical Ballads (first edition 1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, gothic pieces including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Poetry and fiction involving the supernatural had gone out of fashion to a large extent in the 18th century, in part due to the declining belief in witches and other supernatural agents among the educated classes, who embraced the rational approach to the world offered by the new science. Alexander Pope, notably, felt the need to explain and justify his use of elemental spirits in The Rape of the Lock, one of the few English poems of the century that invoked the supernatural. Coleridge wished to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry. The concept of "willing suspension of disbelief" explained how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of story.
The notion of such an action by an audience was however recognized in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace, who also lived in an age of increasing skepticism about the supernatural, in his Ars Poetica.
Psychological critic Norman Holland points to a neuroscientific explanation. When we hear or watch any narrative, our brains go wholly into perceiving mode, turning off the systems for acting or planning to act, and with them go our systems for assessing reality. We have, in Coleridge's second, more accurate phrase, "poetic faith". That's why humans have such trouble recognizing lies: they first believe, then have to make a conscious effort to disbelieve.
Only when we stop perceiving to think about what we have seen or heard, only then do we assess its truth-value. If we are really "into" the fiction - "transported", in the psychologists' term - we are, as Immanuel Kant pointed out long ago, "disinterested". We respond aesthetically, without purpose. We don't judge the truth of what we're perceiving, even though if we stop being transported and think about it, we know quite well it's a fiction.
Suspension of disbelief has also been used within a mental health context by Frank DeFulgentis in his book Flux. It is an attempt to describe the phenomenon of forgetting irrational thoughts associated with cases of OCD. In the book, the author suggests 'suspending disbelief' as opposed to forcing ourselves to forget; similar to how one would put a virus in quarantine. We can thereby allow ourselves to be absorbed in the activities around us until these irrationalities vanish on their own accord.
Aesthetic philosophers generally reject claims that suspension of disbelief accurately characterizes the relationship between people and "fictions." Kendall Walton notes that, if viewers were to truly suspend disbelief at a horror movie and accept its images as true, they would have a true-to-life set of reactions. For instance, audience members would cry out, "Look behind you!" to an endangered on-screen character or call the police when they witnessed an on-screen murder.
However, many of these criticisms simply fail to notice that Coleridge's original statement came in a restrictive clause. The formulation "...that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith," of necessity implies that there are different sorts of suspension of disbelief and specifies that poetic faith is one instance of a larger class. One need not choose to believe that a character in a horror film is a real person in order, for example, to choose to believe that the character is looking at the building seen in the following reverse-shot. More often than not, both beliefs would be equally false.
Not all authors believe that suspension of the disbelief adequately characterizes the audience's relationship to imaginative works of art. J. R. R. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", choosing instead the paradigm of secondary belief based on inner consistency of reality. Tolkien says that, in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible. Tolkien argues that suspension of disbelief is only necessary when the work has failed to create secondary belief. From that point the spell is broken, and the reader ceases to be immersed in the story and must make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief or else give up on it entirely.