Monday 18 May 2009

Moods and Stories

In a post of 9 May in The Valve, entitled "Emotion recollected in tranquillity" (click here to read it) Bill Benzon a frequent and welcome contributor to OnFiction put forward a fascinating and original hypothesis about the role of art in our lives. His proposal has two steps. The first is to disagree with Steven Pinker who thinks that liking art has no evolutionary significance. Benzon thinks art, including music, is adaptive, and that it has an important function of reducing anxieties that are hard to express to others. He argues that:
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.
Benzon's proposal is a productive one. It is a more specific, and evolutionarily based, version of a general idea of the Romantics (as hinted at in the title of Benzon's post in The Valve) that art functions to explore and thus help to assimilate and understand emotions. I have turned the Romantics' idea of art as the expression and exploration of emotions into a small set of psychological hypotheses (Oatley, 2003), which Maja Djikic, Jordan Peterson and I (2006) have started to test. We compared the ways in which writers of fiction and physicists talk about themselves and their work in interviews. We found that fiction writers were far more preoccupied with emotions, especially negative emotions, than were physicists. So literary art tends to come from people who are concerned with their emotions—especially negative ones—and they tend to share these emotions with others, perhaps to help allay them.

The second step in Benzon's proposal derives from the finding that memories are often mood dependent: people tend to recall autobiographical memories of when they were happy when they are happy once again, and they best recall memories of loss and failure when they are sad. Benzon's new idea is that, in the ordinary course of events, people are thus partly cut off from large parts of their autobiographical selves. He then argues that in stories people experience depictions of many desires and many emotions. These depictions thus enable people to recall a wider range of experience than usual and, because they tend to discuss stories with others, or experience them in social settings, these experiences also have social implications. Benzon says:
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.
I would like to offer an extra observation, to add to Benzon's argument. The research group of which I am part has done a good deal of work to show that stories actively induce moods and emotions. For instance, Seema Nundy and I (see Oatley, 2002) asked people to read Russell Banks's short story "Sarah Cole," which induces different emotions in different readers, most commonly anger and sadness. In different moods, it is not only that different memories become available. We found that different modes of thinking became available. After participants had read "Sarah Cole,' we asked them to respond to three interpretive questions about it. In their answers, people made angry by the story reasoned in a way that cognitive scientists call forward chaining, first offering a premise and then thinking forward from it towards implications. People made sad by the story predominantly used backward chaining, thinking backwards from a conclusion to what led up to it. What have these modes of thinking got to do with moods? When angry one thinks forward from a slight or injustice towards possibilities of what to do about it, including possibilities of vengeance. When sad, one backtracks mentally from the loss or mistake to what might have caused it.

William Benzon (2002). Beethoven's anvil: Music in mind and culture. New York: Basic Books.

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley & Jordan Peterson (2006). The bitter-sweet labor of emoting: The linguistic comparison of writers and physicists. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 191-197.

Keith Oatley (2002). Emotions and the story worlds of fiction. In Melaine Green, Jeffrey Strange & Tim Brock (Eds.) Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 39-69). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Keith Oatley (2003). Creative expression and communication of emotion in the visual and narrative arts. In Richard. Davidson, Klaus Scherer & Hill Goldsmith (Eds.) Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 481-502). New York: Oxford University Press.

Steven Pinker (2007). The stuff of thought: Language as a window into human nature. New York: Viking.

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