Monday 10 August 2009

Imagination in Life and Art

I have just returned from a very interesting conference at the University of Leuven, Belgium, of the International Society for Research on Emotions (click here). The conference included a joint session on "Language and Emotions," organized by Willie van Peer, with the International Society for Empirical Research on Literature (click here for advance information about their 2011 conference in Utrecht). I gave the keynote talk for this joint session, which was entitled "From Moral Sentiments to fMRI: Empathetic emotions of social relating and of engaging with fiction." A number of people have kindly asked if I would make my Powerpoint presentation of the talk available, so I have now placed it in our archives of Academic Papers (click here).

The central idea in the talk was that empathy is essential for understanding emotions in ordinary life and in reading or watching fiction so that, although there are occasions in ordinary life when we recognize the emotions of others in ways that do not occur in fiction, and although in fiction we can experience emotions in ways that do not occur in ordinary life, there is a large area of overlap. In this area, the psychological processes of understanding our own and others' emotions are the same for the domain of ordinary life and the domain of fiction, and they are based on constructive imagination. That is why understandings of self and others transfer readily between the two domains.

Narrative fiction (in prose, poetry, plays, and films) is, I argued, a language which, among its functions, offers to us readers and audiences possibilities of experiencing emotions in ways that enable us to understand them sometimes more clearly than we can in ordinary life.

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