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Keith Oatley was born in London, England. He was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded a First in Psychology. After beginning to train in medicine, he did a PhD in Psychology at University College London, and then completed a post-doctoral year in Engineering in Medicine at Imperial College, London. After working at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory’s Autonomics Division, he took up a post as Lecturer in the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex, and during leaves from Sussex he put in stints in the Committee of Mathematical Biology, University of Chicago, and Department of Psychology, University of Toronto. After Sussex, he spent four and a half years as Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Glasgow before moving to Toronto in 1990 to take up a post as Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology. His principal appointment is in the Dept. of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto, of which he was Chair from 1999-2002. He is now Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology. He is a former President of the International Society for Research on Emotions, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has three children, Simon, Grant, and Hannah (all now grown up), and he lives in Toronto with his wife, Jennifer Jenkins, who is a developmental psychologist.

Among Keith's interests have been research in physiological psychology, visual perception, artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and epidemiological psychiatry. He has trained as a psychotherapist with R.D. Laing in the Philadelphia Association, London, UK, and has also worked as a free-lance science journalist. During the last twenty years his principal research has been on the influence of adversity on emotional disorders such as depression, and on human emotions more generally. With Phil Johnson-Laird he is co-author of an established cognitive theory of emotions. His empirical work on emotions (with Elaine Duncan, Ilaria Grazzani, and Laurette Larocque) has included analyses of emotion diaries, accounts people keep of emotions they encounter in day-to-day life. During the last ten years he has also conducted research on the cognitive and emotional processes of reading and writing fiction. In this area he is known for the theory that fiction is a kind of simulation that runs on minds, and (with Raymond Mar and Maja Djikic) for research that shows effects of reading fiction on increasing empathy, and prompting psychological change in readers. Keith organizes and writes for a blog on the psychology of fiction, www.onfiction.ca and he reviews movies for PsycCRITIQUES. He is the author of more than 150 journal articles and chapters, seven books of psychology, which include Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions (1992) and (with Dacher Keltner and Jennifer Jenkins) Understanding Emotions, Second Edition (2006). His most recent books of psychology are Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction (2011), and The passionate muse: Exploring emotion in stories (2012).

Keith is also the author of three novels. The first, The Case of Emily V., is a kind of reverse detective story, not a who-dunnit but a why-she-dunnit in which, in 1904, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes work on the same case of a young woman who seems to have killed her guardian. It won the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel. It revolves round three relationships, and is told in three voices. It has been translated into French, German, and Japanese. His second novel, A Natural History (1998) has been translated into French. It is an interior portrait, set in 1849, of the workings of the mind of a scientist as he strives to solve the problem that is still the most important in medicine: the nature of infectious disease. It is an exploration, too, of the relationship of the researcher with his wife, a pianist. The novel traces ways in which love affects work, and work affects love. His third work of fiction, Therefore choose (2010) is an existentialist novel that has four main characters, in Europe, before and after World War II. It's about how we have to make decisions, and be responsible for them, whether or not we know how they will turn out.

The common themes of this research and writing include furthering our understandings of interactions within complex systems, especially complex social systems.  Keith would like to be able to see beneath the surface of the seen-and-heard world and, in his fiction, to offer people opportunities to experience emotions and understandings—their own emotions and understandings—in situations that they might not otherwise encounter.