Definitions: what are peak aesthetic experiences?

Mar 29, 2022  |  1 min
More mature than a scribble, but not yet what digital gardener Maggie Appleton calls an “evergreen” idea. A note may have taken a fair amount of time to develop. I think the idea has merit.
(See digital gardening.)
 |  Peak aesthetic experiences Story Writing Book Neuroscience

Summary: A peak aesthetic experience is one in which a person is exposed to a particularly meaningful work of art, music, nature, or story and experiences tears, chills, a sense of being moved, or some combination of these.

“From the era of Latin rhetoric and poetics to the present day, emotionally moving an audience has been considered one of the major goals of rhetoric and art.”
— Winfried Menninghaus (Menninghaus)

I’m doing research for a book I hope to write. The book is about story, with a focus on story structure and the underlying functions that make it work. As part of my research, I’m interested in the neuroscience behind storytelling.

As part of my process, I’m posting summaries of my notes as I go. This forces me to “learn in public,” abandoning my perfectionist tendencies and, hopefully, benefitting you.

One of the neuroscience topics I’m researching is what I’m calling “peak aesthetic experiences.” A B

A peak aesthetic experience is one in which a person is exposed to a particularly meaningful work of art, music, nature, or story and experiences tears, chills, a sense of being moved, or some combination of these. Subjectively, a person may feel pleasure, intensity, or insight. People generally look back on peak aesthetic experiences as profoundly positive. For storytellers, peak aesthetic experiences are especially important because of the peak-end rule.

You can think of peak aesthetic experiences as the kind of emotional reaction that a person has to an especially meaningful work of art, music, or story.

Chills, tears, being moved

In the scientific literature, there are at least three phenomena associated with peak aesthetic experiences:

  • chills
  • tears
  • a feeling of “being moved”

These phenomena are, in some ways distinct. For example, using music as a prompt, Mori and Iwanaga found that chills are associated with states of arousal, while tears are associated with calm. (Mori and Iwanaga)

Nevertheless, in peak experiences, these phenomena overlap in interesting ways.

In the same studies, Mori and Iwanaga found that both tears and chills produced pleasure and deep breathing. (Mori and Iwanaga) Both have also been reported to co-occur with states of being moved. (Menninghaus) (Wassiliwizky)

And, although they create opposite states of arousal, chills and tears even can overlap. (Mori and Iwanaga) In fact, Wassiliwizky et al. found that the intensity of response is strongest when they do. “The overlap of tears and goosebumps signifies a maximal climax within peak moments.” (Wassiliwizky)

It’s not unrealistic to thus conclude that all three might happen at the same peak event. Engaging with a particularly salient stimulus, a person may have near simultaneous chills, tears, and a sense of being moved. This is peak aesthetic experience.

Quick facts about peak aesthetic experiences

I’ll go into all of this more later, but for now, here’s a rapid-fire summary of facts about peak aesthetic experiences:

  • Peak aesthetic experiences are cross-cultural (Wassiliwizky) (Menninghaus) (Pelowski), suggesting that they’re core human responses, rather than socially or environmentally adapted.
  • They’re pleasurable, activating the same parts of the brain as euphoric experiences. (Blood and Zatorre) (Mori and Iwanaga)
  • They’re intense. (Menninghaus) (I know, “Thank you, captain obvious.”)
  • They can give us a feeling of insight, a “eureka moment.” (Pelowski) (Schoeller and Perlovsky)
  • Tears, at least, can be cathartic. (Mori and Iwanaga)
  • They results in positive evaluations of the elicitor. People like a moving story and rate it highly. (Pelowski)

Diving deeper

In the rest of the series, I expand on what the research says about how people experience these moments and what, for storytellers, might go into creating them for an audience.

  1. Definitions: what are peak aesthetic experiences?
  2. Investment and peak experience
  3. What types of content create peak experience?
  4. Expectation, the knowledge instinct, and peak experience
  5. Optimal difference and peak experience
  6. Incongruity and peak experience
  7. Priming, callbacks, and peak experience
  8. Intensity and peak experience
  9. Peak experience and the breakthrough moment
  10. The physiology of peak experiences
  11. Peak experiences and reward
  12. The subjective awareness of peak experience

Change history

July 4, 2023: Rearranged content for better readability and added series links.

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Investment and peak experience
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