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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Emotion Recollected in Tranquility

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/09/09 at 05:26 PM

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

In his 1997 best-seller, How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker suggested that, however important art may be to humans, it is not part of our specifically biological nature:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology. In this chapter I will suggest that the arts are a third. (p. 525)

This triggered a backlash of arguments asserting that, no, the arts are not mere mental cheesecake, they are an essential component of human nature, our biological nature.

I was somewhat bemused by the whole fracas. While I have a long standing interest in the neural basis of the arts, I find thinking about biological adaptation to be frustratingly difficult, something I’d prefer to ignore. My editor for Beethoven’s Anvil, William Frucht, however, thought otherwise. And so I dutifully joined the parade of those who shilled for the biological bona fides of art and argued that music was indeed biologically adaptive. Specifically, music reduced anxiety in the group and thereby made it more fit to encounter real challenges and dangers. More recently, and inspired by Pinker’s own The Stuff of Thought, I argued that story-telling allows us to share perceptions, feelings, and values that we cannot talk about.

I now have another proposal to offer, one based in a line of thinking I began entertaining in the mid-1970s when I learned about state-dependent memory. I first learned about state dependence when I read a review of the literature on altered states of consciousness in which Roland Fischer reported an experiment originally performed by D. Goodwin (“The Cartography of Inner Space” in Hallucinations, Siegel and West, eds. 1975, p. 199). Subjects were first made drunk and then asked to memorize nonsense syllables. When their recall was tested while sober they performed poorly. Their recall dramatically improved, however, if they once again became drunk. More recently, Daniel L. Schacter has written of mood-congruent memory retrieval: “Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to remember negative experiences, like failure and rejection, whereas happy moods make it easier to remember pleasant experiences, like success and acceptance” (Searching for Memory, 1996, p. 211). Recall of experience is best when the one’s brain is in the same state it was in when one had that experience. That is what is meant by state dependence.

Given that motivation and emotion are mediated by over a hundred neurotransmitters and neuromodulators (Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, 1998), the state dependent nature of memory has profound implications for our ability to recall our personal experience.  As I have previously argued:

If records of personal experience are [biochemically biased], especially in the case of strongly emotionally charged experience, then how can we get a coherent view of ourselves and of our world?  The world of a person who is ravenously hungry is different from the world of that same person when he or she is consumed with sexual desire.  Yet it is the same person in both cases.  And the apple, which was so insignificant when sexually hungry—to the point where that apple wasn’t part of the world at all—becomes a central object in the world once sexual desire has been satisfied and hunger asserts itself.  Regardless of the person’s [biochemical state], it is still the same apple.

If this is how the nervous system works, then how does one achieve a state of mind in which one can as easily remember an apple as a sexual object? That is to say, how does the brain achieve a biochemically “neutral” state of mind from which one can recall or imagine any kind of experience?

I suggest that story-telling is a way of accomplishing this. Parents tell stories to children in a setting that is comfortable and safe and those stories are generally calibrated with a sense of what interests and pleases the child, but is not too frightening. Children hear stories in which characters are hungry or thirsty, but eventually find food and water, in which characters are lost and frightened, but then found, in which important relationships are imperiled, but restored, in which new relationships are formed and, in time, in which important relationships may be lost forever. They are allowed to experience a wide range of emotional behavior in a context where they are safe.

In the course of arguing that literary works trigger emotionally-charged personal memories, Patrick Colm Hogan tells about a two-old boy’s use of the Peter Rabbit story (The Mind and Its Stories, 2003, p. 67):

Kurt . . . hears the Peter Rabbit story and becomes fascinated with it. He listens to the story repeatedly. He then retells the story, such that “real-life events that Kurt had experienced . . . in the company of his mother and grandmother . . . are attributed to Peter Rabbit and his mother.” The fact that Kurt integrates his own memories into his retellings of the story – his explicit “personalization” of these stories . . . suggests that memories played a part in his enthusiastic response to the story initially.

Yes. But also, and in view of biochemical reality, I suggest that the story gives him a way of accessing and organizing those memories.

And not only young children, but teens and adults experience stories in ways that ensure communal approval. In oral cultures, stories are experienced among friends and familiars. One hears the grunts and murmurs of approval of our fellows, the common laughter, but also the communal sighs of disma; these mingle together and establish the story itself as a good and necessary pleasure. In literate cultures we may read stories in private, but we discuss them among our friends, or in school. Theatrical performance, movies and television are frequently experienced in the company of others. In one way or another, literary experience is institutionalized as shared communal experience.

My argument is that this communal experience of stories helps us to create neural circuits that give us the ability to recall a wide range of experience without our having to be in a neurochemical state approximating that which mediated that experience. Stories – as well as poems and plays – allow us to experience a wide range of desires and feelings in an arena where our personal lives are secure and protected, where our experience is socially approved. Without the constant experience of emotionally charged stories, our memories would be captive to the current mood.

Thus we do not have to be sexually aroused to recall occasions of sexual arousal, nor do we have to be have to be angry or grieving to recall occasions of great anger or the darkest grief. The stories we have learned in the company of others have created a “level playing field” in the mind, neutral ground from which we can survey the full range of human experience. If we can, perhaps in private, step back from the living of life to recall and examine our feelings and actions, that is because our experiences with stories have created a rich weave of mental prototypes through which we can recall and interrogate even the most densely emotional of our experiences. Conversely, if we cannot do this, then how can we construct a coherent view of ourselves? If the sexually aroused self has trouble recalling any life episodes other than those involving sexual arousal, and the vengeful self can recall only incidents of vengeance, and the thirsty self has little sense of any geography beyond that leading to water, then how can we see ourselves and our fellows whole? Such a life would seem to be one of almost constant dissociation (cf. my First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction).

This view is different in emphasis from the common notion that stories are useful because they allow us to gather and share information. My argument is not about the usefulness of the information enfolded in stories, but about how the social situation of story telling facilitates our ability to recall incidents of a kind captured in stories. The usefulness of that information is of little or no account if we cannot access that information except from within very specific states of mind. Story-telling creates a mental arena in which we can review and become self-consciously aware of the full range of our feelings and behaviors, where we can see them in relation to one another.

* * * * *

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider the implications of this idea for the value of psychoanalysis both as therapeutic practice and as a theory of mind.


Bill, I really like this.

It makes me think about how stories help build empathy.  I’ve long suspected that, no matter how much we identify with characters, the lasting experience of literature is “the experience of an experience.” That is to say (and pardon yet another Homer example), when we read *The Odyssey*, we’re not getting an experience of homesickness, but we are getting an experience of being with someone with homesickness.  *The Iliad* doesn’t let us experience war, but it allows us to experience others experiencing war.

Add that to the social aspects of stories that you detail above, and it would seem that stories help build empathy and sanction the limits of empathy.

Leo Bersani writes somewhere that character in fiction is an author’s way of testing the life or death possibilities in a particular way of being.  This makes me thinking that “testing” isn’t quite the right word, that testing comes much later, well after we’ve experienced someone’s experience.

It also makes me think of Dewey on art as experience.  Because art *is* itself an experience as well as, often, a representation of an experience, it holds a privileged position as the way humans have understood, generally speaking, what it means to have, really, an experience.

By on 05/10/09 at 02:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment


You are onto something important here, I think. The idea of stories as tools for “accessing and organizing” memory is quite interesting and helpful. I’m not sure about the “neutral” or “safe space” ideas, however. For me, literature offers a broad set of “framing devices” that enable us to turn raw experience into meaning. The more stories we have encountered, the broader our options when dealing with new experiences. In a sense, I guess that I believe stories create different states of mind, and thus cultivate the ability to ENTER different states of mind as needed in order to “access and organize” the experiential material of our lives.

Thanks for waking my mind up.

Brad Sullivan

By Brad Sullivan on 05/10/09 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The neutrality is neurochemical, Brad. Memory access to the stories themselves doesn’t depend on the neurochemical “tags” of the emotionally charged events in the stories.

By Bill Benzon on 05/10/09 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I really liked this.  It mirrors some thinking I did awhile back about the possible adaptive trait of the drama but the social piece I never thought about and it resonates.

My proposal was that (and this was to a degree inspired by hearing Patrick Colm Hogan speak at a conference) the presence of as-if loops allows us an efficient way to spin out scenarios and improve our cognitive efficiency. 

So if we watch a character in a situation through advisory and empathic projection we experience at as an as-if.  As the above commenter says we “test” our possible actions against the action of the character, advising and empathizing.  And it doesn’t happen later--it happens subcognitively in the moment, though it may come forward into conscious reflection later.

So we have rehearsed for similar situations and we have also rehearsed the cognitive process of high stakes decision making without having to actually endure the experience.

One point I’d like to make though--recalling sexual arousal can and does lead to actual arousal.  So the distinction you make between the as-if of artistic experience and “actual” experience is murky. 

I have an article on line about classical cognitivism and performed fiction if you are interested I could send you the link. 



By blognerd on 05/10/09 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By all means, Jennifer, send a link. Just put it in a comment here.

So the distinction you make between the as-if of artistic experience and “actual” experience is murky.


By Bill Benzon on 05/11/09 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The article is here.

Thanks for indulging me and I hope you find part of the conversation useful.  It was written almost 6 years ago now and I’ve come a bit further in my thinking.


By blognerd on 05/11/09 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Keith Oatley has been kind enough to continue this conversation at OnFiction.

By Bill Benzon on 05/18/09 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If this is how the nervous system works, then how does one achieve a state of mind in which one can as easily remember an apple as a sexual object”?


By on 07/19/09 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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