Incongruity and peak experience

May 22, 2022  |  8 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: Storytellers can create peak aesthetic experiences by setting up imbalances for which our brains naturally seek resolution.

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: incongruity and the desire for resolution.

Imbalance and the pull of gravity

When my oldest son was two years old, my father-in-law built him a rocking horse. It was beautiful, hand-crafted with inlays of different types of wood.

As my son and, now, his younger brother, have grown, it’s been my joy to watch them learn to ride and enjoy the rocking horse.

Rocking horses possess a feature that’s useful for our discussion of peak aesthetic experiences. They are set on curved rockers such that, when you tip a rocking horse either forward or back, it becomes imbalanced, and gravity naturally pulls it back into equilibrium.

In a sense, our minds are similar. When we detect imbalances, our brains have a “gravity” that seeks to bring things back into a more balanced state.

In his research, Matthew Pelowski explores what he calls a “cognitive” theory for peak aesthetic experience.

“The cognitive approach . . . argues that the pertinent element is not whether one felt happy or sad, but rather a specific outcome of information processing centering on two key events: (1) an initial arousal of cognitive dissonance due to discrepancy between expectations and perception, leading to a period of tension or anxiety in which individuals search for resolution or try to repress discrepancy’s consequence; followed by (2) either a psychological or external ‘triggering’ change that causes re-assessment and elicitation of tears.” (Pelowski)

If you look at this closely, you might notice that the first state that Pelowski mentions here, “an initial arousal of cognitive dissonance due to discrepancy between expectation and perception” (emphasis mine) looks a lot like the kind of situation that triggers our old friend, the knowledge instinct. In fact, though Pelowski doesn’t use the same language as Schoeller and Perlovsky, I believe he’s talking about the same thing. A

For storytellers, the important thing to highlight is that this “discrepancy between expectations and perception” creates a desire for resolution, which manifests subjectively as tension. B

In order to elicit peak aesthetic experience, the first part of the formula is a build up of tension, which seeks resolution. This is created through some kind of conflict, some kind of incongruity between the facts of expectation and the facts of reality.

External and internal incongruitites

It seems there are at least two different categories in which these incongruities can arise.

The first of these is conflict directly between a person’s mental model of the world and the external phenomena they encounter. (Pelowski) This is the kind of incongruity that we have, so far, been discussing in our conversations about the knowledge instinct.

The second kind of incongruity, in contrast, is when a person’s knowledge instinct detects conflicts between two irreconcilable components within their models of the world. Two things, both of which a person holds to be true — but which cannot be reconciled with one another — are brought into conflict with one another. In this case, it’s not that the phenomena in the environment challenge a person’s model of the world directly, but rather, they trigger a situation in which those two irreconcilable components are brought together.

While Pelowski focused on the first type of conflicts, Schoeller and Perlovsky address the second. Following Lévi-Strauss and the structuralists, they claim that story, particularly, helps us deal with internal incongruities in our worldviews. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Think, for example, of the scene in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Rings in which the protagonist, Frodo, decides to accept the task of bearing the Ring to Mordor.

Frodo has spent a significant portion of the story up to this point suffering loss and fear, first in saying farewell to his mentor Bilbo and then in being chased by fearsome ringwraiths. He knows personally the kinds of peril (though certainly not yet the degree) that anyone bearing the Ring shall face. And, having brought it to the Elfen stronghold of Rivendel, he is “off the hook;” he has already, quite heroically, completed the task that was asked of him — a task far more arduous than anyone could have reasonably demanded of him. By rights, he should be doing as Bilbo and planning either to spend his time resting from his travails or return home.

This is the expectation with which Frodo (and with him the audience) enters the scene. He has fulfilled his duty. Something must happen to the Ring, but that is someone else’s job now.

But, when the council convenes, the phenomena in Frodo’s environment force him to consider a different, much more difficult possibility. Slowly, as others speak, the enormity of the problem and the risk begin to become apparent. The flight and fear that Frodo has so far experienced is only a mere drop in the ocean of what is to be for whomever is chosen to bear the Ring onward. Though nobody will admit it, the council members all quietly wish that others would perform the task. Nobody is eager to take it up themselves.

As the discussion heats up around him, Frodo begins to grapple with the awful truth: rather than being finished with the bearing of the Ring, perhaps he has only begun the first few steps on a much longer, much more difficult journey.

Here, both the audience and Frodo are caught between incongruous values. On the one hand, we as the audience want health and safety and wellbeing for Frodo. He has fulfilled a difficult mission and our values tell us that he has earned a respite. On the other hand, we know that the Ring must be destroyed, and we want someone to take that heroic charge. Morally, we respect the one who willingly takes on such an extreme challenge. And, perversely, because we are by this point so invested in Frodo (see my earlier post on investment), we want Frodo to be the one to do it. So there is a conflict, a tension. There are multiple, irreconcileable values at play.

There are stories that pit values against one another even more clearly. Warring brothers, for example, who each believe in the nobility and justice of their respective causes; or a lover who the audience believes is the right match for the heroine but who, for the sake of his love for her, willingly relents to another suitor he mistakenly believes she loves more.

“According to Hegel, tragedy emerges when a hero asserts a justified position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and similarly justified position . . . ‘The original essence of tragedy consists then in the fact that within such a conflict each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification, while on the other hand each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by negating and damaging the equally justified power of the other.’” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Standing the test of time

This capacity for satisfaction of intractable problems is one of the core powers of story, and according to Schoeller and Perlovsky, it’s one of the key determining factors in which stories stand the test of time and become enshrined as myths and legends. (Schoeller and Perlovsky) Stories uniquely empower people and cultures to integrate seemingly incongruent beliefs. The more difficult the incongruity, and the more effective a story is at providing a resolution, the more likely the story will endure.

“The universal success of Hollywood narratives and their general propensity to elicit chills might be due to their capability to help overcoming some of the most robust cognitive antinomies by presenting playful solutions to fundamental human conflicts.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a person’s model of the world is challenged directly by incongruities between their models and the external phenomena they encounter or indirectly by internal incongruities within in their own models. What matters is that these incongruities can play on the level of a person’s most deeply-held beliefs. The greater the challenge — and the more deeply held the belief — the greater the conflict. And, the greater the conflict, the greater the potential for peak aesthetic experience.

Onward . . .

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