Optimal difference and peak experience

May 9, 2022  |  4 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: To make story moments maximally engaging, storytellers must find a balance between expectation and suprise. Too familiar is boring. Too different is unbelievable.

I’m doing research for a book about story. I’m posting summaries of my notes as I go. This forces me to “work with the garage door up.” In this post, I continue exploring research on peak aesthetic experiences.

This post 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 another element that can help elicit peak aesthetic experiences: optimal difference.

A spectrum of difference

I talked before about the knowledge instinct. It’s an internal drive we all have, which continually seeks to detect differences between our internal mental models of the world and the external phenomena that we encounter.

Depending on the magnitude of difference we detect, this knowledge instinct can manifest as curiosity or suspense — or even shock and horror. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Schoeller and Perlovsky put it thus:

“We do not feel aesthetically elated when recognizing, say, a chair. Yet, when we do not recognize objects around us or their properties, we may feel disturbed or even scared. This is a staple of thrillers: when a situation is not recognizable, one may experience horror.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

When our environment is totally predictable — a chair remains exactly where you placed it at the kitchen table, for example — it doesn’t produce strong emotion. The knowledge instinct, comparing your mental model for where the chair should be and the reality, confirms its prediction and promptly redirects your mind’s resources to more important things.

On the other hand, when the environment becomes totally unpredictable, and the differences between our minds’ predictions and the reality we encounter are too extreme — a favorite dog you’ve known from a puppy turns and bites you — we experience shock and disbelief. We struggle to integrate what we’re experiencing with our mental models because the difference is just too extreme.

Of course, in neither of these states would a person be likely to experience positive emotion. For our knowledge instinct to be positively engaged, there appears to be an optimal point somewhere between the unmoved chair and the dog bite — a middle school crush unexpectedly slips you a private note on a folded piece of paper. At the extremes, we’re pushed away, but at this optimal point, the difference between our mental models and the phenomena we encounter is just enough to keep us engaged and experiencing a positive thrill of anticipation.

Music as an example

I’ve talked before about how music is optimized for our knowledge instinct. Rhythm and melody establish repetition that gives our prediction hardware something to grasp onto. Variation and dynamics give us pleasant surprises along the way, which our knowledge instinct continually keys into, recognizing and incorporating the differences.

With a notion of the optimal difference, we can now see even more clearly how this works. Imagine a spectrum of music from the totally predictable to the totally chaotic. One one end of the spectrum is something akin to a monotonous drum beat repeated over and over. On the other extreme is a chaotic and atonal assembly of sound. Within the extremes, we could identify genres based on predictability, from children’s songs, like “Happy Birthday,” to pop music, to jazz, to avant-garde.

What we prefer depends on taste and exposure.

For example, most people will enjoy popular forms of music more than experimental. But trained musicians may prefer complex jazz or even appreciate the novelty and subversiveness of avant-garde.

Why is this?

I assume it comes down to how developed our mental models are for appreciating different forms of music. Trained musicians, having invested time in music theory and exposure to different forms, have developed a richer set of mental models. They have “developed a taste” for experimental and non-popular music. They’re thus more tolerant of extremes on the spectrum of difference. A B

Content in this range possesses the optimal difference, both for focusing our attention and for the potential to elicit peak aesthetic experience.

This, I believe, is behind that old adage that story climaxes need to be “surprising yet inevitable.” C

Inevitable, because it must satisfy your expectations for the story. It must not be too bizarre or strange for your knowledge instinct to incorporate. Surprising, because if it fulfills your expectations exactly the way you predicted, your knowledge instinct will find the payoff lackluster and boring, more kitchen chair than secret note.

But optimal difference doesn’t, on its own, create peak aesthetic experience. Rather, it creates the environment in which peak aesthetic experience can happen. For peak aesthetic experience to be triggered, other factors need also to be at play. We’ll talk about some of those soon.

Onward . . .

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