Why Do Books Make Us Feel Emotions?

I, for one, do not need to be convinced that books make us feel emotions. I’ve felt the entire spectrum of them in my years of being a reader. I’m going to continue to feel familiar and unfamiliar emotions as I engage with writing that navigates the fragility of the human experience. I’m fascinated by the how and the why. How are words printed on paper or displayed on screens making the metaphorical tides in my heart rise and fall? What part of an author’s toolkit lets them do this? Why do some books make us feel more than others? Let’s delve in.

A study published in frontiers focuses on the cognitive and affective processes involved in reading. They found that ToM regions of the brain are closely associated with reading stories that bring out negative emotions. Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, and to know that others have beliefs that are different from one’s own. When we read, we essentially do this very thing. We understand that the characters we’re reading about are fictional. We can assess their mental state in the context of their story and know that it is different from our own.

We can also simultaneously engage with the story’s emotional arcs as they draw out our feelings. These feelings, especially when it comes to stories with negative emotional valence, appear because of two primary reasons: moral reasoning and empathy. We empathize with the characters and try to figure out if the consequences of their actions are morally justified or not. This is an inherently emotionally charged process. Our amygdala is particularly engaged when dealing with negative emotions.

It’s also interesting to note that the anterior superior temporal cortex has two very different cognitive functions: sentence processing and social-emotional processing. As we break down sentence structure to understand its meaning, our socio-emotional centers are also being charged. This provides further evidence into how reading makes us feel all the feels.

Now that we’ve briefly addressed why reading makes us feel, let’s look at how writers make use of this phenomenon. Indian theorists lend us some insight into this. The Rasa Theory of Indian Aesthetics shows us how writers evoke our emotions. To understand it, let’s look at the 4 broad categories of shallow:

i. sthayibhava: permanent or dominant moods
ii. Vyabhicharibhava: fleeting or transient emotions
iii. Vibhava: stimuli that bring out emotions
iv. Anubhava: effect or response of emotions

In his book natyashastraBharata Muni implies that the blending of vibhava, anubhavaand vyabhichari leads to sthyibhava. This means that the blending of fleeting emotions, stimuli, and response draws out dominant emotions from the reader. Indian writers, especially poets, have used this knowledge to write in a way that helps the reader experience the full range of human emotions.

As Keith Oatley writes in his article, we’re supposed to experience these shallow without the overwhelming context of our lived experience. We should ideally be able to read these works as impartial spectators. And even though we always tend to carry our own biases to the table, we can still gain a lot from being thickened in someone’s story. When we read, we can observe humans interacting with each other and the world around them, from a safe space. We can learn from their shortcomings, moral failings, and occasional rise to whatever we consider heroism. In fiction, we can identify our own selves and be reassured. We can also be introduced to different ideas, perspectives, and experiences from our own. And we can give differing opinions a fighting chance in the context of the story they’re told in.

Our reading brain looks for cues to bring out our feelings. Writers use techniques honored with practice to draw them out even more. We, as readers, are left at the mercy of these forces. We feel emotions, sometimes fleeting and sometimes intense. Sometimes books can also make us feel secondhand emotions as outlined in Danika Ellis’s essay. But while we feel these emotions, we also inch towards understanding. We get closer to a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The study was conducted at the University of Toronto to establish a link between reading and empathy by professors of the University of Toronto. They found that frequent readers of fiction scored higher on certain measures of empathy.

It’s strangely comforting to me how this often solitary activity can invite community and belonging in our lives. We feel seen, identify ourselves, and open metaphorical doors to people we perceived and literal ourselves to be wildly different from us. We can come together to learn and act for causes that affect all of us to varying degrees. Reading and letting ourselves feel can be both an invitation to care and also teach us how to channel it.

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