Priming, callbacks, and peak experience

May 25, 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 use both tonal and thematic setups to create peak aesthetic experiences.

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 two more elements of story content that can help elicit peak aesthetic experiences: priming and callbacks.

Priming: short-range setup and payoff

In their study, Schoeller and Perlovsky ran an experiment in which they exposed subjects to different primes before watching a minute-long, choreographed video set to classical music. They intended the primes to either activate higher reasoning, be neutral, or be incoherent.

“We chose to use (i) a sentence from the French philosopher Pascal (‘the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason’), (ii) a sentence from a children’s book (‘I once saw an apple in a tree’), and (iii) a classic example from Noam Chomsky illustrating that syntax might be independent from semantics (‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’).” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

They found that the primes did indeed influence subjects’ experience of chills upon watching the video, with the higher-reasoning prime having the greatest influence and the incoherent prime resulting in none of the participants experiencing chills at all. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

In a post-experiment survey, the participants who were exposed to the more meaningful, higher-reasoning prime also reported experiencing more pleasure. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

Priming works by exposing a person to some kind of input, which leaves a “residual trace,” in neural pathways, making future activation of the same pathways easier. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

In my very limited knowledge, A the kind of priming that Schoeller and Perlovsky employed is a short-term phenomenon. It wouldn’t work, for example, for them to have their participants be exposed to the prime, go shopping at the mall, and then return to watch the choreography video. By that time, the neural pathways activated but the prime would no longer “be warm,” so the it would have no effect.

For our discussion, we can think of a prime as a kind of setup that is immediately or nearly immediately followed by its payoff.

The prime doesn’t have to be in any way related to the subsequent triggering experience to be effective. In Schoeller and Perlovsky’s experiment, for example, the prime was about the philosophy of reason and the video was a choreographed dance. The philosophical prime moved participants into the space of “meaningfulness,” so they derived a meaningful experience from the artistic dance. But, the philosophical statement and the dance had no inherent logical connection with one another.

The takeaway for storytellers is that priming is more about the heart than the head. It’s about the feeling, the cognitive mood that you want your audience to be in, rather than about the specific details of the setup and payoff. Want your audience to feel insight at the payoff, for example? Challenge them with a puzzle immediately before.

The last thing to observe, which was Schoeller’s and Perlovsky’s point, is that priming can affect how much enjoyment your audience derives from your story. In their experiment, participants who received the meaningful prime reported deriving greater pleasure from the art than those who didn’t. (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

It would be tempting to claim that this experiment supports valuing “high,” intellectually-engaging art over more populist, “popcorn” art. I, myself, enjoy intellectually challenging or insightful stories, and the prime the researchers used was philosophical in nature. Doesn’t this mean that more intellectually-rigorous art provides better priming and thus better pleasure?


But, it’s just as possible that what Schoeller and Perlovsky detected in one, narrow vector is also true of others. Perhaps, in addition to meaningfulness, there are good, effective primes for action and suspense and horror and humor. And, perhaps those primes are just as effective at increasing audience pleasure within their own domains. Maybe “meaningfulness” is only one out of many ways to achieve these effects.

Callbacks: long-range setup and payoff

In their study, Blood and Zatorre used music as a stimulus to study participants’ neural activity during peak aesthetic experiences. What’s interesting for our discussion today is that they used pieces of music, which the participants chose, and truncated them to 90-second clips. (Blood and Zatorre)

The researchers’ motivations for using shorter clips was most likely practical; it’s far quicker to test a 90-second clip than a full score. B

The fact that these truncated sections of music did elicit a strong aesthetic reaction suggests one of two interesting possibilities. The first possibility is that 90 seconds provided enough context — enough build of tension and setup of expectation — to produce a peak aesthetic experience for the listener at payoff. The second possibility, which, to me, at least, seems more likely is that participants imported emotional memory from previously having listened to the full-length scores.

Remember that the participants chose scores which they reported had previously elicited peak aesthetic experience for them. (Blood and Zatorre) Thus, each participant was already familiar with the music. This supports the idea that their reactions in the laboratory were not elicited by the content of the 90-second clips alone but by what the clips represented, a return to the participants’ previous experience of the full pieces.

This conjecture could be further supported by the fact that the same clips were used as controls for other participants, who did not experience peak aesthetic experience upon listening to them. (In other words, a clip that one participant found particularly moving was not moving to another.) The support here is thin, however, as there are a lot of other factors involved. As Blood and Zatorre point out, taste in music is highly individual. (Blood and Zatorre)

I can’t reemphasize enough that Blood and Zatorre’s results don’t at all prove what I’m saying. The concern of their study was to document participant’s neural reactions to the stimuli, not the relationship between familiar and unfamiliar experience-eliciting stimuli. Their experimental results are suggestive to me, but everything I’m saying here is conjecture.

That rather large caveat notwithstanding, if it is true that we can “import” previous emotional experience, that has implications for storytellers. Based on Blood and Zatorre’s study, we could construct a formula that looks something like the following:

Previous experience of a moving moment + current exposure to something that recalls that moment = more easy return to peak aesthetic experience

In fact, this looks a lot like what’s commonly referred to as a “callback.” Though he doesn’t use the term specifically, author Dwight V. Swain describes the technique well:

“An object or phenomenon . . . that evokes a strong emotional reaction in your hero. You . . . demonstrate that this emotional reaction is linked to adherence to principle where said character is concerned. You do this early in the story. Preferably, you do it several times. Then, at the critical moment in your climax . . . you reintroduce the gimmick once more.” (Swain, Page 196)

We’ve already established that resonance with values — what Swain calls ‘principle’ here — can help elicit peak aesthetic experience. Swain shows how a callback structure can be used to first seed emotional power early in a story and then, later, bring it to bear at a crucial moment. I believe the effect we see in Blood and Zatorre’s experiment could be playing on the same underlying phenomena.


What does this all mean for storytellers? It seems to be that there are at least two patterns of setup and payoff that storytellers can harness to help create peak aesthetic experiences.

The first type of setup and payoff uses neural priming. It runs on a short timeframe, in which an audience is first exposed to an idea or experience and then, while the groups of neurons triggered by that phenomenon are “still warm,” paid off by exposure to a second phenomenon. The content of setup and payoff do not need to be logically related; it’s more about feeling than semantics. The power of this kind of setup is that it moves an audience into a particular mental frame, giving the storyteller some control over the nature of the payoff. If the setup is particularly meaningful, evidence suggests that it can enhance the enjoyment the audience experiences at payoff as well.

The second type of setup and payoff uses callbacks. It runs on a long timeframe — essentially extending as long as an audience can remember. It operates by attaching audience emotion to a particular, in-story phenomenon and then later recalling that phenomenon in a crucial moment in the story. Where priming-based payoff doesn’t require logical connection between the content of the setup and payoff, callback-based payoff relies upon it.

Looking at things this way, we can derive one more, interesting conclusion. If it’s true that both of these patterns exist and can help elicit peak aesthetic experience, it seems reasonable to suggest that storytellers can stack them to added effect. In other words, a storyteller could create a callback somewhere early in a story and then, right before the moment of climax, also prime her audience. At the climax itself, both long-range and short-range effects could be paid off simultaneously.

Onward . . .

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