The physiology of peak experiences

Jun 17, 2022  |  6 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: When something elicits peak aesthetic experience, our bodies are put into a unique physiological state that mingles elements of both tension 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 earlier posts in this series, I talked about elements of story that contribute to peak aesthetic experiences.

In this post, I’ll shift gears a bit and begin a discussion about what actually happens to us during peak aesthetic experience. We’ll start off with physiology and then, in future posts, turn to what happens in our brain’s reward systems and what we experience subjectively.

Two physiological responses

What happens, physiologically, during peak aesthetic experience?

Remember that there are two different physical phenomena that serve as indicators of peak aesthetic experience. The first of these is chills, which are represented externally by goosebumps. The second is being moved to tears, which, aside from the tears themselves, is represented externally by tension in certain facial muscles.

In their study of the interaction between these phenomena, Wassililwizky et al. found that the strongest intensity of experience among their participants was when both tears and goosebumps overlapped:

“The results show . . . intensity was highest for tears combined with goosebumps, followed by tears only and goosebumps only. This gradual effect was observed in all psychophysiological channels that were measured.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

They also found a “gradual increase in emotional arousal even within peak emotional moments.” The co-occurrence of tears and goosebumps was the climax, the peak of the peak. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Interestingly, they didn’t find any definite order to the goosebumps and tears responses. Tears came first in around 60% of cases, while goosebumps came first in the rest. (Wassiliwizky, “Sequence of effects” section)

Gearing up for action

Blood and Zatorre’s study focused only on chills responses. They found that chills correlated with increases in heart rate, muscle tension, and depth of breathing. (Blood and Zatorre, “Results” section) Mori and Iwanaga found that both chills and tears induced deep breathing. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Discussion” section) A Our bodies respond to peak aesthetic experience by gearing up.

This appears to be systemic, more than just breathing and heart rate. Blood and Zatorre report that, “Intensely pleasurable emotions are accompanied by activity in neural systems underlying . . . motivation . . . and arousal processes.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Abstract” section) Menninghaus et al. found that a feeling of being moved associated closely with “approaching and attending” action-readiness states. (Menninghaus, “Introduction” section)

In other words, in experiencing deep empathy in a peak aesthetic experience, we are moved to act on others’ behalf. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) There is a motivational component that’s literally reflected in our neural and physiological responses. (Menninghaus, “Study 1: Cognitive appraisal patterns” section) Our whole bodies “gear up” to act.

Contrast in physiological response

While there are significant similarities in the physiological correlates of chills and tears, there are also some important differences.

For example, Mori and Iwanaga found that, while chills were related to physiological arousal, tears, in contrast, were related to physiological calming. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Discussion” section) They speculate that chills may be closely tied to our sympathetic nervous system and reward response, while tears may be instead tied to our parasympathetic nervous system and catharsis. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Discussion” section)

This idea isn’t unique to Mori and Iwanaga. Wassiliwizky et al. also point out that in the literature, goosebumps are usually associated with the sympathetic nervous system, whose activation has “classically been associated with mobilization of energy in demanding situations,” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) while tears are usually associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, whose function has been associated with “regeneration in the absence of environmental stressors.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Thus, when it comes to peak aesthetic experience, there appear to be two categories of responses, those that arouse us, getting us ready for action, and those that calm us down.

Co-occurrence of conflicting responses

Surprisingly, rather than being two incompatible branches of physiological response, there’s some intriguing evidence to suggest that, in peak aesthetic experience, both arousal and calming processes occur at the same time.

Remember that Wassiliwizky et al. found no predictable order in which their participants experienced goosebumps or tears. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) Given that goosebumps are associated with action and tears with relief, one would assume that goosebumps would always come first (a rise and subsequent fall in excitement). Instead, not only was there no definite order, but tears and goosebumps sometimes occurred simultaneously. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Wassiliwizky et al. observe that their findings directly conflict with the classically-held view that tears are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and calming:

“Our present findings . . . point in the opposite direction . . . we observed increased sympathetic activity (as reflected by the skin conductance and heart rate data) in periods of tears.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

They also found simultaneous activation of other physiological responses that are normally opposites. For example, they observed simultaneous electromyographic activity in muscle groups associated with positive affect and those associated with negative affect. (Wassiliwizky, “Psychophysiological correlates” section)

Together, this leads to a fascinating possibility. Perhaps the co-occurrence of tears and goosebumps is a unique, specialized physiological phenomenon:

“In some complex physiological processes, however—for example, in sexual arousal, the [sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system] are known to interact simultaneously within the same process . . . We assume that intense states of being moved that are indicated by tears and goosebumps are likewise mediated by a complex antagonistic interplay of the [two systems] resulting in an intense physiological activation and a unique subjective bodily feeling.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

In other words, in these moments, our systems for physiological arousal and physiological calming are pitted against one another in a sort of tug-of-war. It’s possible that the uniqueness of this state may be one of the defining characteristics that make peak aesthetic experience what it is.


Here we can see that, when something elicits peak aesthetic experience, our bodies are put into a unique physiological state. Our heart rate goes up. Our breathing deepens. We become physiologically aroused by our sympathetic nervous system, ready for action. Yet, at the same time, other forces are at play. Our parasympathetic nervous system is simultaneously triggered, working to bring release of tension, calming, and relief. We may experience chills and then tears or tears and then chills. As the two systems interact, it creates an intense, piquant experience that we don’t seem to have in any other way.

Next up, we’ll go deeper, talking about how peak aesthetic experience affects our brains’ reward systems and then, eventually, what we feel subjectively.

Onward . . .

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