Thursday, October 07, 2004

Fiction & Emotion

Why do we respond emotionally to fictions? Is it irrational of us to feel joy or sadness about characters and events that we know aren't real?

In a recent seminar given us, Justine Kingsbury of Waikato University suggested that evolutionary psychology - and particularly the positing of informationally encapsulated 'mental modules' - could shed some light on our seemingly odd behaviour here. The core of her explanation is that although we know the fiction isn't real, this information might not be accessible to the emotion 'modules' of the brain. This view suggests that emotions are rather like automatic reflexes (and so a-rational, rather than irrational). If you see a monster on the movie screen, this stimulus may activate your 'fear module', which does not have access to the information that the threat is not real. (A similar explanation may be given of irrational phobias, which must be overcome through training - mere cognition is insufficient.)

I'm not entirely convinced, however. Our emotional response to fiction seems deeper than that. We need to be engrossed in the fiction; mere perception of the superficial stimuli is insufficient to elicit most emotional responses (there are some exceptions, e.g. disgust). I won't feel sad at a character's loss unless I reflect on their situation, and empathise. This suggests that our responses are more cognitive and less automatic than the modularity account would seem to grant. (Unless I'm missing something here?)

I think a better explanation would focus on the role of fiction as a sort of simulation. In reading a novel, we create an internal simulation of the events it portrays. This provides us with surrogate experiences, as of engaging unfamiliar environments or situations, but without any real-life risk. I think it makes sense for us to react emotionally to the simulation, for it would otherwise be incomplete. How we feel about a situation is a crucial aspect of it; to leave this out of the simulation would be to omit something of great importance to us.

So I think it appropriate for us to react emotionally to fictions. Whether it is, strictly speaking, rational cannot be meaningfully answered until we clarify what is meant by that word in this context. Some suggestions from a TLS article:
An emotion is “cognitively rational” if it is based on a well-supported belief (I clearly saw that it was you and not Susan who knocked over my glass of red wine), and “strategically rational” if it leads to actions that will achieve a desirable goal (the urgency of my anxiety encourages me to rush across the room and immediately throw salt on the stain).

I guess what I described above suggests an indirect form of strategic rationality: emotions about fictions are useful in that they help us attain our goal (loosely understood) of learning more about life. Arguing that they are cognitively rational is more difficult, given that these emotions are based on imagined (or simulated) beliefs, rather than real ones.

A neat solution would be to say that the emotions too are merely simulated rather than real. Jonathan Ichikawa has previously argued for something along these lines (at least for some cases). There is some independent evidence to support this claim: Compared to real life, we seem to have an unusual degree of control over our emotional responses to fiction. Also, the resulting emotions are often more transitory, and less likely to influence our behaviour than other emotions. Counter-evidence would include the phenomenological similarities (it seems that we really do feel happy/sad, not that we're merely simulating it), and physiological ones too.

Any suggestions?


  1. I hate to judge from that short a description, but it appears to me that Justine Kingsbury is suffering from a disorder common to people who buy into the claims of evolutionary psychology, a disorder that we might call hyper-modularization. If there's a name for it, it must be a module (a Fodorian informationally-encapsulated module, at that!). A simple review of the neuroscience literature quickly cures this disorder, but no one has ever accused evolutionary psychologists of reading neuroscience.

    That said, I think there may be several possible psychological/neuroscientific explanations. For instance, if we take seriously the neuroscientific theories of people like Edelman or Damasio, then there may in fact be evolutionary reasons for our emotional response to fiction. However, instead of emotions being informationally-encapsulated, they are part of a reciprocal loop in which information is processed cognitively, which then activates an emotional response, which then in turn influences further cognitive processing. What you have with fiction, then, is an (almost always) muted emotional response to incoming data that, if not in the form of fiction, would create an even stronger response (when we read about a lion attacking, we don't run!).

    In this account, the emotional responses really are automatic at first, but because they are dependent on cognitive input, and not accompanied by the expected (from the emotional system's perspective) sensory input, the emotional system's response is muted, and more easily controlled. Still, the influence really does go both ways. Cognition would be lost without emotion telling it what's going on, and if the emotional response to fiction were to get a bit out of control, it would be easy for us to "forget" that what we are dealing with is in fact finctional.

    One interesting aspect of the emotional responses to fiction is that, unlike the emotional responses to real-world situations, they often send our minds searching for memories of similar events in our real lives. This is not to say that real-world emotion-inducing events don't remind us, in the moment, of similar past events. However, such remindings are usually very particular, and likely serve to help guide us in the present situation. Fiction often causes us to remember similar situations in great detail, and this only serves to heighten the emotional experience (because the memories themselves cause an emotional reaction). As far back as Aristotle, "literary theorists" have noticed the importance of this sort of "empathy" in the experience of works of fiction. I suspect that the reason people write and read fiction, and the reason fiction "works," is just this: good fiction taps into the emotional memories of its audience members. Not only does this make fiction an ultimately pleasurable experience, but it also makes it a valuable one, as it helps us to understand our own experiences better. This is a fact that religions around the world have been capitalizing on for millenia. 

    Posted by Chris

  2. Hope this is relevant … and pastes into your blogg site alright .
    Here goes.

    I don’t think our reactions to fiction are at all surprising .
    As long as the book has the elements of style character and craft that a particular reader is comfortable with, we fairly easily become ‘lost in the book’. It becomes real for us,
    though this can be to varying degrees, even within the same book. I can recollect emerging from some books and being almost disconnected from the ‘normality’ around.
    As chris above has pointed out, a written “world” can speak to parts of the mind that common life does not. Thinking in particular of ideas placed together with characters as a story, so that they have huge impact as it all unfolds.

    Here’s a point though. The mind and feelings can be totally caught up. Even the body feeling the tension or sadness or exultation … but no action is possible. The body reactions seem to be almost ‘switched off’ as if by the nerve ( whose name I forget) that operates when we dream.
    (Provocative thought there .. would be interesting to test for brain function/states while reading.)

    What the book has done then is … placed you, as far as your mind is concerned, at the scene - as a helpless, silent witness. The more real the writing , the more this presence at the scene, the more the potential effect.
    If one is less deeply ‘caught up’.. yes, there is more awarness of the normal world and the knowledge that you are reading and can skip to the end, or stop in disgust .. or save for later .. whatever.
    It seems to be a process with degrees.

    One of the more startling experiences of my younger life was a hypnotists performance.
    The stranger sitting next to me, had gone to the stage where he was given a post hypnotic sugestion. Upon the signal, half an hour later, astonishing transformation before my carefully watching eyes.
    He perhaps did not become exactly a 'beatle' of that singing group, but he became totally his idea of them,- what he had seen and thought. Every outward manifestation, and certainly some very odd internal excitement as he leapt up and bounded recklessly down to the stage. Whooping all the while. Leaving one asking... how much of 'me' and of feelings is 'real'?

    Am I suggesting reading is a form of hypnotism?
    Hmmm .. sounds good, but I suggest rather, that both are a result of how our reality is perceived and reacted to.
    There is a word ‘identification’, used in some circles. It refers to the process where a mind decides who “I” am. What the concept “I” refers to.
    It is fundamental to humans at all times, I believe.
    And varies almost constantly. Not the ‘feeling of I’ itself, but the content of mind to which it is attached.

    Here’s my own view on this ….. without any ‘authority ‘ I will admit. .
    It is to do with the way a brain is a vast nerve network.
    The patterns of links in this network change, but many are well established and constantly repeated to deal with the consistent element of our reality, detected since first experience of a physical ‘world’ around.
    And the concept of “I’ is part of this network. When operating in one ‘set’ of patterns in a familiar situation, the sense of “I” is a particular one. It has best access … ( through the most accessible links of the nerve network when in that state ) to particular knowledge and feelings. ‘Reflecting’ the feelings into the body by the various links of mind to body state. All going to build this sense of self.
    Move to another common situation and all the links will change again.
    Leave that for now .. because it goes on and on in implication.

    It suppose it’s obvious where this is going. That there is no ‘real’ particular ‘ I’ , or sense of the world. There is simply the one that is strongest at a particular time, in a particular situation. Usually it is related fairly well to the actual physical world, but not, I think, as much as one has been taught to believe. Or the rest of the world is pretty much ignored as the self focuses to achieve some aim . Come to think of it .. that is exactly what the network mind does. Selects only the relevant data ( sensory and mental) for the purpose that has become dominant.

    I am suggesting that common ideas about ‘self’ and ‘will’ and ‘world’ are a bit of an illusion. And that when reading, a whole host of links in the nerve network can ‘lock on’ to the world displayed therein. It becomes ‘real’. For a time. “I” am there, in that world. Feelings are engaged. Done.

    And other parts of the network may start to operate, ones with a more complete world picture, and interfere. Depends. We are all a variable collection of ‘selves’ and motives and situations.

    “I “ seem to have got carried away here!! Better stop .

    I am amused to sum up .. “ we live in a mind constructed world most of the time, and react to that. It is hardly any different to simply follow another’s description in a book and react to that in the same way. “

    regards David L.


    Posted by David L

  3. Chris - some very interesting comments there. Regarding Fodorian modules, are you suggesting that they never have a place in psychological explanations, or merely that they tend to get overused? Assuming the latter, couldn't this be one of those rare appropriate uses of modularity? (I think the modular explanation is insufficient, as I explained in the main post. But I don't think it is obviously wrong.)

    Regarding the "reciprocal loop" theory (which does sound very interesting), I think we still need an explanation of why we have any emotional response to fiction to begin with. Do our cognitive processes not 'realise' that the information they're processing is not real? [As suggested by your comment "emotional responses really are automatic at first".] Or do they 'realise' this, but continue to process it (albeit in a slightly muted fashion) regardless? Are the same areas involved in processing fictional and real information, or do we process them separately or somehow differently?

    David - I'm not entirely sure that I've followed your train of thought there, but are you suggesting that our emotional responses are explained because we genuinely forget that the fiction isn't real? Or is it just that we get so caught up in the simulation that other areas of our mind (e.g. emotions) start to treat it as if it were real (even though our belief centres know better)? 

    Posted by Richard

  4. I tend to think that the Fodorian view of modularity really is wrong. "Information encapsulation" is just too strong a requirement. I won't go into why here, though I may post about it sometime in the near future.

    The "loop" between emotion and cognition would explain the emotional reaction to fiction (both in its existence and its mutedeness) if emotional centers of the brain processed information directly and from the cognitive system in real time, which is what in fact happens. Thus, you get a reaction to the input (e.g., a description of a lion) which is subsequently tempered by regulation from the cognitive system that knows that the input is fictional. Furthermore, the emotional system, judging by the amount and saliency of the input, can probably tell the difference as well. 

    Posted by Chris

  5. Sorry if my previous was vague Richard. I have let these ideas and chris’s comments, rattle around in my head for a while, and talked to others, hoping for clarification. Sadly my brain ( which tends to explore wildly then let time settle the outcome ..) has found it all so fascinating that apparently endless related material on mind, knowing, and reading has emerged.

    I dare say no one else will ever read this but I need to finish what I started, so as to be free of it..
    Here are some of the thoughts I found most interesting.Probably just as vague as before!

    The question seems to have come down to >> how does the brain operate such that events and characters that it knows to be fictional can still arouse emotion, ranging up to as strong as in the real world.
    Whether it is ‘irrational’ will emerge.

    I don’t see any explanation in the evolutionary psychology approach as it is basically presented.
    For myself, I still get an explanation from my own idea of a network mind.. It just seemed a logical extension of simple first principles - of the way nerves select and pass on impulses according to a wide variety of inputs. I believe there is a linking/selecting system which is above all the modules that EP. speaks of .. linking them together. Even if modules are a misrepresentation , their mind /emotion functions are still there within the network.
    (There would not need to be a physical location of this overarching ‘network mind’ but the best candidate is the frontal lobes, with links to the other centers of activity.)

    The character of my supposed network is that it is a learning ( physically ‘evolving’ by ‘selection of the fittest’ if you like) mechanism, with rewards, that can ‘lock’ to different degrees the ‘links’ or lose them through disuse. And it is in a continual dance of impulses which have to find new balance as new impulses from environment -- or from sets of emotionally linked thoughts being pursued .... enter the fray.

    As I suggested in the last comment, in such a changing system there are more dominant patterns of links , with stronger connections for situations where there is consistent outside environment and emotional involvement, together with more easily accessed links to related knowledge and memory.

    By the way, I am talking about an automatic machine here. A balancing or juggling of endless impulses, that happens to be totally biased by its reward sytem to produce results for survival. A very odd one too, in that it produces a sense of self or “I’. Where the machines actions appear to ‘us’ as “decisions, fears thoughts” etc. …. And which are a result of much activity ‘we’ don’t know about .

    The above suggests that any ‘image ‘ in mind,of a situation or person, is going to be potentially linked with emotions - if the ‘image/concept’ is near to one that has been previously responded to. This can happen when we pursue a memory, in fact is how memory works, I believe. We cannot ‘think’ to search for a memory unless we are currently in a ‘pattern’ which has links that can ‘know’ that such a memory exists. Born out by the way memory is enhanced by deliberate use of ‘association’ tricks.

    I suppose it is obvious that the ‘image’ above, can be in the mind of a reader of a book,since the words can form images in the mind, ( more on what exactly is there later) and it depends too, on just how deeply the attention is given -- the state of the ‘imager’ or reader.
    As with everything to do with this network, it is a balance and flow, and I guess once past a certain point it becomes ‘totally wrapt’ as some might say, in a particular set of links. Positive feedback of ‘reward’ holding it closed in a loop till the story ends or something stronger intervenes. One person remarked how they were so lost in this loop that the body signals of discomfort were extreme before they penetrated.

    However, the network does not arrive at this state when reading ( or when searching memory or trying to work out something) from nowhere. I said the network is a change and flow, and it finds various periods of balance.
    There will always be a previous state before the reading starts, and a varying impulse that brings the reading about. Hence when the reading images begin there can be various degrees of links left to the previous sense of self, and knowledge. As when we pursue a memory or idea … you start with one aim, and then become totally lost. So with reading .. or not.. It is a balance .. sometimes we retain a reality from which ‘we’ are reading. Other times ‘we’ vanish. Disappear into a reality formed from the older links to memories and feelings, and .. er .. conducted ( as in an orchestra ) by the stream of word data from the scanning eyes..

    So, how ‘real’ are these feelings that arise? Depends on subjective judgement. Sometimes vaguely real, as when we try to remember a far off place or time . Yet with total ‘lock on’, they are as real as anything can be for us. Our network also seems to have times when the whole range and energy of its actions are wider and “reality’ internal or external appears more vivid.

    What of the knowledge of the “real’ physical world being currently around a reader .. and that the story is not real? It doesn’t matter. As far as the network is concerned is has accessed the links to the feelings. To whatever degree possible at the moment.
    I suspect also there may be key patterns of ‘story’, of ‘journey and achievement and resolution’ that resonates with the way the network operates. T here could be resonance for archetypal figures as well ..
    Altogether, the ‘reward’ chemicals that are released could theoretically be greater than reality. Rather like .. um .. a drug?
    Please no! Surely reading doesn’t turn out to be a mind altering drug habit.!

    Here is a curious observation I made yesterday. I was staring out the window having despaired of getting my thoughts sorted on all this, when it occured to me that my mind had been labelling the objects visible outside. Not just names but the character of them .. like .. " wonderfully sunlit leaves with shadow cast of branches " ( emotional value with them ) As the eyes moved about there had been a commentary on everything. Sometimes an ill- formed sort of preword sensation. But sometimes more recognizable. and suddenly a click on the brain. Words. concepts. I am telling myself what it is all about .. like a story.. Another click. Someone i heard on national radio sometime ( such accuracy!) , remarked that we tell ourselves stories all the time to make sense of things.

    Well, i don't know that it happens all the time, but it certainly does happen, especially perhaps, because of an intentionally seaching state of mind. My brain had been recognizing, re- creating my current reality with these labels. Sorting out, selecting 'my world'.
    As i said above ... this particular sense of myself and world was becoming dominant. But it was extraordinarily like words you would read in a book.
    I hate to think it, but can it be that our normal idea of the world and knowledge havelargely come to us through words? We certainly learned names for things very early, and reading proceeded as we learned .. defined’ our reality more and more.
    So that they are the ... mediators of our reality ? We can certainly see the world without words or concepts, when we decide to really look, and this is probably how we started as children, but we seem normally to live in a more automatic and internal world. And it is based on word/concepts.
    Is it then any wonder that words in books can speak to us so powerfully? . Stir emotions in the same way as real situations ?

    It seems from this point of view that it would be almost impossible for words not to affect us !
    In the linking network above, the words would be ‘knots’ with strong links to feelings together making our world of ‘meaning.’
    There was also the thought that "I' was in this word picture of the world. With a role to play. The hero of the story! And aware of purposes to be achieved, tasks to be done ( or avoided) .. just like any story .
    A suggestion perhaps that it really could be a deep pattern in our network mind. Very close to our sense of self as ‘the one that counts.’

    So one answer to your- “why do we feel emotions even though we know a situation is not real” is that these reactions happen automatically, as a result of a free runing bio-network-machine in our heads.. It acts whether we like it or not. What we call rational is but a part of it’s operational capability.
    From that point of view fictional based emotions are irrational.
    But a story can speak to deep patterns in us, and widen emotional understanding as if real.
    Which make them reasonable and useful and relevant .

    I can now let all this go …. aaaaahhh … Regards . David.


    Posted by David


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