Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Constructing feelings towards fiction

Constructing feelings towards fiction

Over the summer, on and off,  I've been listening to the audiobook version of Lisa Feldman Barrett's fascinating How Emotions Are Madeand while doing so,  I've been thinking vaguely about how her theory might alter the landscape of current discussion about emotional responses in relation to fiction. This is an attempt to get my rather speculative thoughts down on the matter, and it's a little longer than usual.

Many of us seem to respond emotionally to fictional events as we read or hear about them or watch them. The concepts of the tearjerker, the thriller, and the horror film, respectively all depend upon this possibility. Fictions not only can make us (apparently) feel sad, thrilled or horrified, they can also make us feel frightened, angry, delighted or exhilarated.

Historically, some philosophers have found such descriptions problematic, on conceptual grounds. The worry often centres around an assumption they make about emotion concepts. This is the assumption that most emotions require a belief in the reality of the objects that cause them, or at least an absence of belief in the non-existence of those objects. That is, for instance, you can't count as feeling genuinely frightened of things where you also believe those things don't exist (so the assumption goes). You can't count as feeling genuinely angry about things where you also believe those things didn't happen. And so on. If this is right, then perhaps we should classify fear-at-the-movies as different from genuine or "real" fear, and do similarly for the other relevant emotion-types, since in typical cases, no-one undergoing these feelings believes that what they are imagining really exists.

Now, the prior assumption might well be attacked. An objector might point to apparently standard cases of genuine emotion where a similar belief in the non-existence of the object of the emotion is present. For instance, a few weeks ago I took my kids to an outdoors adventure centre and watched, terrified, as my small youngest precariously negotiated a wobbling rope walkway, 8 foot from the ground. All the next day, I had inadvertent visions of him falling, and felt a jolt of sickening adrenalin as I did so, despite knowing full well that he had managed to cross without any accident. Isn't this fear? It certainly felt like it.

To this, it might be countered that even if two instances of a response feel the same to you "from the inside", it might still be worth distinguishing them conceptually on other grounds. But in any case, the objector might continue: never mind for now about whether or not a certain kind of belief is necessary for, or inconsistent with, a given emotion.  In any case, "emotions" towards fictions have additional features which also make them look less than kosher.

For one, most people seem to enjoy even the most traditionally negative of emotions in relation to fiction. Viewers and readers positively seek out "fear" (via thrillers), "horror" (via horror films) and "anger" (via fictional miscarriages of justice), and find the experiences enjoyable. They even pay to have them! This doesn't seem so much like the genuine emotional article, even considered from the inside: genuine fear, horror, and anger are horrible to experience. Moreover, the objector might go on: consumers of fiction don't act like they are in the grip of the relevant emotions: they do things like eat popcorn, drink tea, and at most, cover their eyes rather than flee. Where they cry, they dry their tears as soon as they leave the cinema, and happily go about their lives. And so on.

Such considerations might seem to put the existence of genuine emotion-instances towards fictional scenarios in doubt. Enter Feldman Barrett's view. I'll first do my best to summarise it, relatively briefly and with a lot inevitably left out. I'll then speculate, rather inconclusively, about what new things her theory might bring to the table, in thinking about apparent emotions towards fictions. This is not to offer an endorsement of the view, since there are many things I'm not sure about; it's offered more in the form of a conditional "IF this were right, what else would follow?" (And a further caveat: I'm aware, as indeed Feldman Barrett is, that philosophers have offered versions of this sort of view before. I'm not suggesting she's the only constructivist around, though she is certainly one of the most empirically well informed).

Feldman Barrett, who is a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, wants to dislodge a dominant picture of emotion, which she calls the 'classical view'. On this view, each emotion - anger, fear, joy, etc. - has, universally and cross-culturally: a) a distinctive brain activity profile, without which it can't occur b) a distinctive set of "inner" feelings associated with it, without which it can't occur; c) a distinctive "external" bodily profile - facial expressions, physiological changes, behavioural changes - without which it can't occur, and via which it is identified by others. All of these assumptions are false, as Feldman Barrett convincingly suggests, via a wealth of empirical evidence conducted in her own lab and elsewhere. Taking fear as an example, fear is in fact associated with a highly diverse set of brain events, feelings, bodily changes and behaviour, across cultures and even across agents within cultures, and has no "essential" ones. As she would put it, fear has no "fingerprint". You don't have to flee; you don't have to widen your eyes; you don't have to feel weak-kneed; and so on.

(I'll here take a short but pleasurable digression to describe one of the best things about this book: the way it forensically takes apart past experiments apparently supportive of the classical view, by showing how they ignore competing cultural or other local explanations for their findings.  For instance, researchers attempting to establish the classical view draw support from experiments allegedly demonstrating the universal ability of people to recognise a few "basic" emotions. These experiments asked subjects to inspect photographs of actors enacting cultural stereotypes associated with the expression of certain emotions: wide eyes and open mouth for fear; furrowed brow and narrowed eyes for anger, and so on. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that a very high proportion of subjects could recognise the "right" emotion for each photo. But, as the book argues, the use of this finding to prop up the classical view ignores the explanation that such stereotypes have been learnt by subjects via popular culture, are precisely being acted, and in fact are not associated with real emotions in any systematic way. Furthermore, as Feldman Barrett also makes clear, interpreting similar or related data in favour of the classical view has often ignored the role of narrative context in prompting the right answer in experiments; the distorting role of forced choice; and the capacity of subjects to learn the right answer from an experiment where they didn't originally know it.

Meanwhile, via another set of experiments, Feldman Barrett counters the widely held view that fear is "located" in the amygdala brain region - supposedly previously established by showing subjects photos of, you've guessed it, actors enacting fear stereotypes, and tracing concurrent increased activity in the subjects' amygdalae as a result. She does so by presenting evidence to suggest that in fact, activity increases there in response to any newly encountered face or facial pose, not just frightened ones. Ouch!) 

Such gratifying takedowns aside, the positive features of Feldman Barrett's theory are as follows. Many of these moves are highly theoretical and not forced upon us by the data, so need more critical scrutiny than I could possibly offer here. (Obviously, she provides careful arguments and evidence for each of these, which I can't summarise - I urge you to read the book if you're interested).

As I understand it, some key points are as follows:

a) Each emotion is a population of instances, with enormous variation (in neurological profile, physiology, feeling and behaviour) across the category. Each population of instances of an emotion has statistically average neurological/ physiological/ phenomenological/ behavioural features, but this average doesn't represent what emotions should be (it isn't a norm), and certainly doesn't represent anything essential for the existence of the emotion concerned. We therefore shouldn't think of emotions as single homogenous entities, but as "collections" of "diverse instances".

b) In individual instances, emotions are "constructed". In getting angry, for instance, your brain already has already employed a concept of anger, which is largely responsible for your conscious experience and action of anger. This concept is originally acquired through social interaction with others (being told what anger is as a child, reading about it, experiencing various feelings and behaviours, in particular situations, and being told they are "anger"), and is developed through new experiences of anger, which are recorded in memory. It isn't gained through hard-wiring. Emotion concepts are not universal, and many are highly culturally specific; which entails (since emotion concepts determine emotions), that emotions are not universal and can be highly cultural specific.

c) Emotion concepts are essentially predictive. They don't so much passively reflect what was already there, as predict things will be a certain way, with a certain meaning, so that the agent consciously experiences them that way and acts accordingly. In particular, they're a way of predicting and so giving interpretative meaning to 'interoceptive' sensations: that is, the pleasant or unpleasant, agitated or calm sensations, which occur as your body tries to release extra energy or conserve it, in response to perceived situations . All this prediction happens preconsciously - we don't deliberately choose to feel emotion in a given instance and there's nothing much deliberately we can do to stop it, in the moment. (To this end, I find the book's talk of how you are the "active" "constructor" of your own experience a bit overdone, since the conscious "you" has nothing to do with it). Nonetheless, in well-functioning cases, your brain has contributed a large part of the emotion, and the external world not so much. (In cases of prediction error, in contrast, your brain has to do more work to get things right: either adjust the prediction, or filter out the data suggestive of error).

d) The concept of a given emotion (e.g. anger) is also applied by your brain to other people, when you see them acting or expressing themselves in certain ways, in certain contexts, and you predict their emotion by reference to your concept and your past experiences (of your emotions, and of others). 

In the light of these points, what could we say about apparent emotion responses to fiction? One thought that immediately occurs is that if a given emotion category has no empirically discoverable essential features whatever amongst its members, it would seem very demanding to insist a priori (that is, as a matter of conceptual necessity) that its instances must involve a certain kind of belief, or the lack of some other kind, as some philosophers have insisted. This thought is made more pressing by the further consideration that if Feldman Barrett is right, emotions start in the brain way before conscious experience accesses them, let alone rational thought. Even more reason then, to be wary of the essentialist claim. (It is notable that Feldman Barrett herself and other emotion researchers have no qualms, in experimental contexts, about prompting "emotions" via fictional representations: scary films, heart-rending photos which may or may not be staged, sad stories, and so on. This doesn't settle any questions, though - such researchers don't have particularly privileged access to the way things should be categorised theoretically, and experiments can't sort this out on their own, as I've written about elsewhere).

Turning now to the issue of the apparently pleasurable nature of normally negative emotions like "fear" and "sadness", when experienced in relation to fiction, and the popcorn-munching and tea-drinking which tends to accompany them: does Feldman Barrett's view have any light to shed here? I'm not sure. On the one hand, here too the idea that emotions have highly diverse populations of instances looks helpful in supporting the idea that the same emotion-type is basically in play here. Who says fear or anger has to be unpleasant, or has to be accompanied by specific kinds of behaviour? Hasn't she debunked the notion of a behavioural or phenomenological 'fingerprint' for each emotion, after all? At the same time, even if she has debunked this, we still retain the idea of a statistical average of feelings and behaviour for a traditionally negative emotion such as fear; and enjoying oneself whilst eating popcorn may look pretty atypical for it. 

Perhaps more importantly, another point pushing us towards separately classifying, for instance, fear-at-the-movies from other fear, is the sheer multiplicity of emotion concepts allowed in Feldman Barrett's model. She's very big on the notion of 'emotional granularity': the idea that we can, and often do, develop highly contingent emotion concepts on the fly, to accommodate particular local contexts and goals, which then help us construct that particular emotion in future. Once we move away from the classical view of only a few, hard-wired, universal emotions, we can have as many emotions as we like, or at least, need.

Completely speculating, then, a Feldman Barrettish way of analysing what happens when, say, we watch an adrenalin-inducing thriller, is that the stimulus of the film causes in us, preconsciously, unpleasant(ish) feelings in us of stress and energy expenditure; however, our emotional concept of "fear-at-the-movies", inherited from prior experiences of movie-watching (plus, presumably, our parents telling us that going to see scary movies is safe and 'fun' etc.), constructs our experience as relatively harmless and even with its enjoyable aspects. In other words, perhaps here we do have reason to distinguish between fear-at-the-movies and ordinary fear, after all.

These are just speculations, and I encourage anyone intrigued to check out this enjoyable book for themselves, which includes lots of practical advice about how best to cope with emotions as they hit one. (Meanwhile, to hear me talk more about emotions and fictions,  listen to this Philosophy Bites podcast).

(Addendum: the fangirl in me is delighted to see that this post is now linked to on Professor Feldman Barrett's own website


Image credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Ghosts on the stage." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864.

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