Peak experience and the breakthrough moment

Jun 10, 2022  |  11 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: At climactic moments, story audiences should experience the greatest magnitude in shifts from tension and disequilibrium to balance and release.

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 the last element that can help elicit peak aesthetic experiences: breakthrough.

Dinosaurs in the park

The midpoint of the 1993 film Jurassic Park is a master class in suspense, set up, and payoff. In a sense, the whole movie up to this point has been anticipating the moment when things go wrong. This is that moment.

But even within the scene, director Steven Spielberg does a lot to amp up the tension, adding layer after layer (the darkness of the storm, ripples in the cup of water, the missing goat) before finally revealing the Tyrannosaurus-Rex in all of its glory.

Moments later, in a far subtler movement, the scene forces the protagonist Dr. Alan Grant to face a central moral dilemma: use his expert knowledge as a paleontologist to protect himself or draw the monster’s attention, risking death in order to save endangered children who will certainly be eaten otherwise. The kicker? He doesn’t even like kids.

If you’ve been keeping up with my posts about peak aesthetic experience, you’ll no doubt have noticed that the construction of this scene has a lot of the signature factors that make for a moving scene.

  • There’s a steep ramp in expectation and intensity as the first moments of the scene signal to audiences, “Here it is; the moment you’ve been waiting for.”
  • There’s also a play on the level of prosocial values with Grant’s dilemma.
  • The horror elements, with the dinosaur’s approach and the grisly fate of the goat serve as primes that set audiences up for thrill.

Together, Spielberg’s masterpiece is “firing on all cylinders,” perfectly set up for maximal payoff. It no wonder that this scene is indelibly marked in moviegoers’ memories.

But what actually happens to Spielberg’s audience when the beast is revealed? Up to now, in our series, we’ve been talking about the factors that go into the preparation of these moments. Now, it’s time to investigate the payoff, the precise moment that peak aesthetic experience transpires.

A shift in the knowledge instinct

As a reminder, Schoeller and Perlovsky theorize that “aesthetic emotions correspond to satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the knowledge instinct.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Methodological considerations” section)

They chart the knowledge instinct on a difference curve representing the distance between our existing mental models and the phenomena we encounter in the world.(Schoeller and Perlovsky, “The instinct of knowledge” section)

As we integrate our observations of the world and update our mental models, the difference between the two becomes less and less. The researchers represent this as a flattening. They hypothesize that peak aesthetic experience occurs when the curve totally flattens after a steep incline.(Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Aesthetic chills” section)

“The dynamic . . . seems to involve a change from a great disequilibrium . . . to a state of equilibrium.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section)

For our discussion, the point is that, leading up to this moment, there is mounting tension as our brains struggle to reconcile what we observe with what we know. When the pieces finally snap together, we experience a moment almost like an epiphany. A This leveling off of the curve is a kind of breakthrough.

The emotional payoff is proportional to the intensity of the struggle. The greater the struggle, the greater the payoff. (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Properties of chill-eliciting scenes” section)

Pelowski similarly identified a progression of “initial discrepancy, followed by schema change, and [conclusion] in a proposed adjustment or ‘transformation’ of one’s self image/world-view.” (Pelowski, “Abstract” section)

Following a period of tension, our mental model readjusts abruptly, and we experience transformation.

Powerlessness to escape

How is that moment of transformation constructed?

Menninghaus et al.’s study included reports of participants’ moving experiences in fiction as well as life. Among the reports were events such as weddings, funerals, and births. (Menninghaus, “Cognitive appraisal patterns” section)

From these, the researchers found that among “the most distinctive findings regarding cognitive appraisals [what participants thought about particularly moving events] were very low ratings for causation of the event by oneself and power to change the outcome.” (Menninghaus, “General discussion” section) (Emphasis theirs)

The moment of payoff begins, counterintuitively, with a recognition that we can’t change the situation. We have to get “backed into a corner.”

When observing participants watching moving movie scenes, Wassiliwizky et al. detected activation in brain regions that have been “associated with states of helplessness and feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

As an audience, we need to realize on a subconscious level that we are stuck and there is no way out. In a word, we must experience helplessness.

We see this in Jurassic Park on a physical level with the inescapable threat of the T-Rex. The creature is all-powerful (at least in terms of the scene), and the only hope is to find a way of escape. The characters are helpless to save themselves.

On a character level, when Grant realizes the children will die if he does nothing, he is forced in to an intractable position. He must choose between death on the one hand and, on the other, the unbearable knowledge that he stood aside and let others die when he could have saved them — and children, no less. The awful dilemma is inescapable; the scene forces him to make a choice.

When we are backed into a corner, when the struggle is at its most intense, we must feel powerless to escape the problem.

Anything less than that will fail to create the situation necessary for peak aesthetic experience, because until we are powerless, we won’t surrender. (Pelowski, “Secondary control” section)

Surrender and release

Pelowski’s theory hinges on the moment of change in worldview. (For our purposes, worldview is defined as our mental model of how the world ought to be.)

Remember that people generally resist challenges to their worldview. Change is costly and threatening. If we are successful in resisting, we return to the safety of our preexisting beliefs. It is only when our resistance fails — and we surrender — that we experience tears:

“Crying . . . is argued to occur specifically in those rare cases when viewers do not assimilate or escape. Forced into an intractable position, they instead adopt a self-referential approach to interaction, acknowledging discrepancy, ‘giving up’ attempts at overt control, eventually confronting and changing their own schema or expectations.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section) (Emphasis mine.)

This observation suggests that perhaps it is not powerlessness, itself, that elicits peak aesthetic experiences but rather the release that comes at the end of a process of encountering overwhelming change, struggling to resist it, realizing one’s inability to overcome it, and finally surrendering and accepting it.

Pelowski outlines the process as follows:

“The model proposes correlations between crying and: (1) anxiety, tension, confusion, stemming from initial discrepancy; followed by (2) need to escape/abort, related to secondary control. In the case of crying, this should be followed by (3) self-awareness, motive assessment, and awareness of triggers; finally concluding with (4) relief as well as epiphany or insight, marking the aesthetic end.” (Pelowski, “Emotion” section)

Thus peak aesthetic experience correlates with relief.

Leading up to the moment of acceptance, tension has been building like the stress between two tectonic plates. At the breakthrough itself, the plates slip, and the audience’s mental schema changes. The mounting differences between the world and their mental models suddenly resolve.

The T-Rex appears; Dr. Grant makes his choice.

Once this happens, the knowledge instinct is satisfied. “There is no need to foresee what is going to happen next since the storyline has reached its point of equilibrium. The spectator is finally free to let go.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section) B

The audience experiences a “disappearance of a barrier, solution to a problem, or transformation of a previously held worldview.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section)

Tension evaporates, and the release elicits peak aesthetic experience.

“Crying . . . [is] a physiological response . . . accompanying relief of tension following schema change.” (Pelowski, “Review: the two-factor theory of crying” section)

In storytelling

How does this help storytellers?

As we’ve already started to identify, the breakthrough moment is the “payoff” part of “set up and pay off.” It’s what story theorists are referring to when they talk about turning points and scene and story climaxes. Most storytellers already construct these breakthrough moments intuitively.

Nevertheless, we can use the research to make some observations.

First, to create the most effective payoff, there must be a moment that forces surrender. Surrender doesn’t come naturally. We resist it. So an audience must be “backed into a corner” by the story construction. If the tension releases too soon or too easily, the payoff will not be satisfying. It must feel like a genuinely intractable situation.

Second, if our experience of breakthrough is tied to a readjustment of our knowledge instinct, this suggests the foundations for revelation-based turning points. Artful storytellers can capitalize on the knowledge instinct to create powerful moments of revelation in their stories.

Mysteries, for example, often present a series of puzzles, each of which divulge a clue. Yet the storyteller withholds the final, lynchpin reveal until near the end. This creates a situation of building tension as our knowledge instinct is continually strung along, increasing our curiosity and desire to integrate the confounding facts of the story with the mental model we are building.

The effect can be made even more powerful if the successive revelation of clues serves not to narrow but to widen the gap between the facts of the story and the audience’s mental models. As we go deeper into the story, it becomes harder and harder to reconcile the clues with our expectations. We begin to be “backed into a corner” in which it seems impossible to resolve the mystery.

In the climax, when the final clue is revealed and there is sudden reconciliation between the facts and our models, we experience the moment of payoff. “Of course! Why didn’t I see it all along?”

Third, as has already been hinted by the mention of turning points, breakthrough moments can help us construct plot structures.

“There are particular nods in the story (especially at the end, in the third act) where tension reaches a peak value. These nods constitute the structure of the story.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Narratology” section)

Schoeller and Perlovsky found that nearly 60% of the scenes which elicited participant chills were at what they call “crucial node[s] in the narrative,” which they define as scenes for which “the summary of the film would not be the same if the properties of these scenes were different.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Properties of chill-eliciting scenes” section)

The types of breakthrough moments that elicit peak aesthetic experience — and the attendant shifts in audience understanding — are plot-defining.

Lastly, we can see why the highest tension in well-crafted stories is often near the end. (Schoeller and Perlovsky found that “more than 80% of the chill-eliciting scenes described by . . . subjects take place in the third act.”) (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Properties of chill-eliciting scenes” section)

In order to keep an audience engaged through the body of the story, a storyteller must maintain some difference between the facts of the story and the audience’s mental models. There must be some missing information, which triggers the audience’s knowledge instinct to keep seeking resolution.

It’s only at the very end of the story that the storyteller can allow the knowledge instinct to reach complete satisfaction and equilibrium. If that happened earlier, say a third of the way into the story, the audience might simply lose interest and walk away.

And, since the moment of equilibrium must come at the end, it makes sense that the moment of greatest tension be placed immediately before that. Thus, at the story climax, the audience gets to experience the most intense shift from tension and disequilibrium to balance and release. If the moment of greatest tension were much earlier, the slope would be less extreme, and the feeling of payoff dulled.


We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series so far.

  • We’ve looked at the factors of story content that create an environment in which peak aesthetic experience is likely.
  • We’ve investigated the knowledge instinct and seen how it drives audiences to seek resolution.
  • We’ve seen how rising tension and intensity can set up for peak experiences.
  • Now, with an understanding of the breakthrough moment, we have a nearly complete picture.

But, the research isn’t done. There remain just a few more things worth investigating.

Onward . . .

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