Investment and peak experience

Apr 5, 2022  |  5 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: The deeper we are invested in the characters and themes in a story, the more likely we will find the story moving.

I’m doing research for a book about story. Part of my research is about the neuroscience behind stories. 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, dear reader.

In this post, I continue exploring the research on peak aesthetic experiences, which I defined in an earlier post.

What causes peak aesthetic experiences? Or, put another way, how do they work? How does a storyteller create a peak aesthetic experience for an audience?

This is a part of a series:

  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

In this post, I’ll talk about the first of these.


Investment is how much the audience cares about the story.

In order for audiences to respond strongly, they need to be invested in the outcome. It must be meaningful to them. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

In part, investment can come from the themes that a story addresses — We’ll talk about that in a minute — but ideas alone are difficult to connect with. The best way to bring audiences into a work is through character.

Empathy: investment in characters

Schoeller and Perlovsky found that every one of the chill-eliciting scenes suggested by their study participants involved the main character. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

“The strong and unusual empathy mentioned by our subjects leads us to propose that one of the fundamental human conflicts which chill-eliciting scenes might help resolve and overcome is the fact that humans survive by sharing goals.(Schoeller and Perlovsky) (Emphasis mine.)

When engaging with a story, it is the characters, first and foremost, with whom we connect. In large part, this is because we can understand and share their goals. Seeing what they need — and what they’re up against — we can imagine ourselves in a similar position and imagine what they must feel. Understanding their goals creates empathy.

It’s not just stories that do this. Mori and Iwanaga discuss reports by Saarikallio and Erkkilä and Lamont that, in music, “listeners could identify with the sad character of the sad song and felt as if the singer knew their own sad experiences, making them feel understood.(Mori and Iwanaga) (Emphasis mine.)

We connect when we understand others and when, in others’ shared experiences, we feel understood ourselves. Thus, empathy with the characters in a story unlocks the potential for us to be emotionally moved. But potential alone isn’t enough. That potential needs to be activated.

Values: investment in ideas

The second important ingredient of investment is values, what Menninghaus et al. labelled “compatibility with social norms and self-ideals.” (Menninghaus)

Our values are our ethical and moral center. They determine how we assign importance, how we define something as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and how we appraise ourselves and others.

In 2015, Menninghaus, et al. interviewed more than two hundred students, asking them to share about real events or events in fiction that had been “moving”, “stirring”, or “touching.” (Menninghaus)

When they asked participants to rate the qualities of these events on a five-point Likert scale, qualities that rated the highest were “being ethically acceptable, being consistent with moral ideals, and being consistent with the picture of oneself.” A If you squint, you’ll see that all three of these highest rated qualities have to do with values.

Also note that what’s at play here is the vindication of our values. We’re moved when the values that we hold dear are put on display and celebrated.

Why do values factor so significantly in our experience of being moved?

A theory of cognitive hierarchy

Schoeller and Perlovsky attribute this to a theory of being moved that has to do with cognitive hierarchy. The idea is that our minds create a spectrum of concepts, from lower level models of concrete objects, like chairs and tables, to higher level models of abstracts, like love and courage. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Lower-level models can compose into higher-level, more complex models:

“For example, the representation ‘symphony hall’ unifies lower-level representations of objects (rows of chairs, listeners, scene, performers, etc.) into a unified concept of the symphony hall. Similarly, concepts of a symphony hall, concerts, (etc.) are unified into a concept of ‘conservatory,’ and ‘higher up’ the hierarchy to ‘culture,’ etc.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

The key claim is that peak aesthetic experiences affect our minds at the highest levels of the hierarchy, what Schoeller and Perlovsky frame as “cognitive contents we experience mostly unconsciously as ‘meaning of life.’” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Our ideals and values, view of self and how we integrate with others, and sense of purpose are all at play. B

The key point is that, according to the theory, changing one’s view at higher levels of our cognitive hierarchies require changes to the supporting, lower layers. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

In other words, we’re most deeply invested in the things at the highest levels of the hierarchy — our values. Changing your worldview is one of the most energy-intensive and difficult cognitive processes. We don’t enter into it easily. And the converse is also true. We experience reward when our worldviews are positively reinforced. (Schoeller and Perlovsky) We emotionally connect in powerful ways with stories that vindicate our values.

Wrapping it up

Peak aesthetic experiences are created by the convergence of a number of factors. One of these is that the audience must be invested in the experience. In story, this happens most easily when the audience can empathize with characters and when the moral actions of those characters resonate with the audience’s own values.

One reason that values are so powerful is that our human cognitive systems are biased to preserve cognitive models at higher levels of abstraction. In a sense, when the conflict in a story revolves around a particular value we hold dear, we have a stake in the game. This is especially true if we’re also invested in the characters, through empathy.

That’s it for now. More to come . . .

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