Intensity and peak experience

Jun 5, 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: Tension must reach a certain minimum level of intensity before peak aesthetic experience is possible.

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: intensity.

In his paper, Matthew Pelowski cites an encounter by performance artist Andrea Fraser with the work of sculptor Fred Sandback:

“[Fraser] recalled feeling that [Sandback’s] works were so devoid of substance that they led her to question the ontological viability of art, causing a subsequent questioning of art making, and—because she was herself an artist—causing a re-evaluation of herself.” (Pelowski, “The two-factor theory and examples with art” section)

“‘For me, art [became] an impossibility. And if art is impossible, then artists are also impossible, and I myself am impossible.’” (Pelowski, “The two-factor theory and examples with art” section)

Confronted by Sandback’s work, Fraser had something of a moment. She experienced a challenge to her core identity and was moved to tears as a result. (Pelowski, “The two-factor theory and examples with art” section)

Her encounter can teach us about peak aesthetic experience.

Tension and schema change

In Matthew Pelowski’s theory, people are moved to tears through a multi-step process:

  1. First, people encounter a “discrepancy between expectation and perception.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section) (See post on the knowledge instinct.)
  2. This is followed by a “period of tension or anxiety in which individuals search for resolution or try to repress discrepancy’s consequence.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section) (See post on incongruity.)
  3. Finally, if people cannot find a way to escape, there is a watershed moment (in more senses than one) in which people’s schema’s readjust. (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section)

Pelowski’s theory focuses on schema change, a moment when a person’s model of the world has been challenged and they can no longer maintain their previous understanding.

Generally, these moments involve resistance. People will, if given a chance, choose to preserve their existing schemas.

“Individuals typically structure interactions to avoid . . . discrepant events, employing pre-expectational filters, or, if discrepancy arises, attempting to diminish or escape from involvement.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section)

This makes sense if you think about it. Updating our models of the world takes energy, (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Conclusion” section) and, as neuroscientist Read Montague discusses at length in Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect, our brains are wired to conserve energy. (Montague, Pages 22-24) Given a choice, we will choose to conserve energy.

This resistance to schema change manifests as Pelowski’s “period of tension or anxiety.”

Our experience of tension is, in large part, the subjective experience of our brains’ resistance to change that it either anticipates or has already detected.

Intensity, significance, and physiological response

“That’s all well and good,” you may say, “But, humans encounter hundreds of discrepancies every day, yet almost all of them fail to result in strong emotion, let alone peak experience. What makes the difference?”

It’s a great question.

It appears that most differences don’t result in peak experiences because they simply aren’t significant enough. They are either of so little degree or so little consequence that they don’t matter. It’s only when there’s a significant schema change, when a deeply-held schema is threatened, that we experience the tension necessary to elicit peak aesthetic experience. Peak aesthetic experience is, at least in part, related to the degree of intensity of the threat to our schemas.

Study participants’ physiological responses support this claim.

For example, when measuring participants’ experience of chills elicited by music, Blood and Zatorre observed significant increases in heart rate, breathing, and electromyogram (EMG) readings (EMG can be used to gauge muscle tension). (Blood and Zatorre, “Results” section) Wassiliwizky et al. also observed increase in heart rate related to tears and goosebumps. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) Mori an Iwanaga observed increased heart rate and respiration depth in response to peak moments in music listening. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Discussion” section)

Blood and Zatorre found that, “as intensity of . . . chills increased, cerebral blood flow increases and decreases were observed in brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal . . . brain structures are known to be active in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Abstract” section)

Participants’ reports of their subjective experiences seem to agree with the physiological findings. For example, Schoeller and Perlovsky found that, among their participants, the emotional payoff reported at story climax and resolution appeared to be proportional to the intensity of the preceding struggle. The greater the struggle, the greater the payoff. (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Properties of chill-eliciting scenes” section)

Thus, participants’ subjective sensation of peak aesthetic experience correlated with physiological responses that also correlate with intensity.

The intensity threshold

There appears to be a minimum level of intensity required in order to elicit peak aesthetic experience.

Blood and Zatorre observed that responses to music in participants’ neural reward centers “were found to correlate with chills intensity but not with the more mildly pleasant emotion associated with consonance.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) (Emphasis mine.)

This demonstrates that peak physiological responses were activated by a certain level of intensity, rather than just listening to music in general.

Furthermore, their study participants reported that the intensity of their chills trailed behind the intensity they experienced for pleasantness and emotional intensity. (Blood and Zatorre, “Results” section)

In other words, chills intensity correlated with pleasantness and emotional intensity — they rose and fell at the same times — but chills intensity was always less intense than those other feelings. According to the researchers, this suggests that “pleasantness and emotional intensity must reach a certain level before chills are experienced.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Results” section) (Emphasis mine.)

Intensity and storytelling

What does this all mean for storytellers?

Clearly, when it comes to crafting a peak aesthetic experience, tension is a good thing. The more intense the moment immediately before breakthrough, the more likely to result in peak aesthetic experience for the audience. A B

Furthermore, we can begin to see how these moments are constructed on a mechanical level. In an earlier post, I mentioned Schoeller and Perlovsky’s “tension principle,” the idea that a storyteller sets up a dramatic situation or question but withholds crucial details that would fill in the answer. Thanks to Pelowski, we can see that this “unanswered question” creates tension because it causes our brains to anticipate possible schema change.

Let’s put this all together.

First, a storyteller creates an initial schema in the audience’s mind. To do this, the storyteller must help the audience invest in the protagonist and the protagonist’s goal. C It’s even more powerful if the protagonist’s situation somehow relates to values that resonate with the audience.

After firmly establishing the schema, the storyteller then threatens that schema, creating the possibility that it will need to change. This creates tension. The more deeply invested the audience is in the protagonist and the goal, the more deeply felt will be the tension over schema change.

“If the story is well-crafted (if the classical unities are respected, if the elements of the narrative are important, if the viewer cares about the story) narrative tension should trigger psychological tension (i.e., an emotional response).” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section)

One key insight here is that tension is now embodied in goals and obstacles.

“There exist mainly two types of heroes: (i) heroes who have tremendous goals (e.g., being the best chest player in the world) and (ii) heroes who have tremendous obstacles (e.g., surviving a natural catastrophe).” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section)

If written in a formula, we could say:

  • Investment in the characters and their goals = Schema 1
  • Obstacles = Schema 2
  • Schema 1 + Schema 2 = Tension


  • Investment in characters and their goals + Obstacles = Tension

Over the course of the narrative, the storyteller raises the tension by increasing the value of the goals or the strength of the obstacles. At the climax, the tension is resolved either positively or negatively, and the audience’s schema for the story rebalances.

Schoeller and Perlovsky express a formula for thus:

“Narrative tension is directly proportional to conflict, and it is inversely proportional to the likelihood of the hero reaching his goal given obstacles.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section)


In sum:

  • There’s a compelling case that the threat of schema change is the source of narrative tension. The intensity of that tension is related to the significance of the schema change.
  • When audiences are more deeply invested in the characters and their goals, the significance of the schema increases. When the obstacles become greater, the threat to the schema increases.
  • So, as audience investment in characters and goals increases, and as the strength of obstacles increases, so does the tension the audience feels over the anticipated schema change.
  • And finally, tension must reach a certain minimum level of intensity before peak aesthetic experience is possible.

Onward . . .

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