Peak experiences and reward

Jun 27, 2022  |  7 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: In peak aesthetic experience, activation of reward circuitry manifest in increased pleasure, attention, and memory.

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, with a focus on our brain’s reward systems.

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

Earlier in this series, I talked about the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Jurrassic Park in which the Tyrannosaurus-Rex first escapes. Nobody who has seen the film will quickly forget the ripples in the water glass, the goat’s leg falling on the car, or that first, triumphant shot of the king of dinosaurs, raising its head and roaring. They are indelibly burned into audiences’ brains.

So also the moment in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf faces down the Balrog in Mordor or, for a different audience, the moment in Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennett visits Pemberley, believing Mr. Darcy to be away, and he stumbles upon her. A

What is it about certain story moments that makes them so memorable? Especially, what is it about these moments that makes them more memorable than other, more ‘ordinary’ moments? What sets them apart?

To answer that, we need to understand what’s happening inside our brains during peak aesthetic experiences.

Peak aesthetic experience and reward

Evidence suggests that peak aesthetic experience interacts with regions of the brain associated with reward.

In their study of music-related chills and tears, Mori and Iwanaga discuss research linking chills to the medial orbitofrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens, (Mori and Iwanaga, “Discussion” section) two regions of the brain associated with reward.

Similarly, Blood and Zatorre’s scans suggested activity in participants’ reward regions, including the nucleus accumbens. (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) They further observed that “the dorsomedial location of [participants’ brain] response suggests that this activity may be either in PAG or in PPT . . . Both PAG and PPT play an integral role in reward responses.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) B

Blood and Zatorre go on to discuss how “regions associated with reward/motivation circuitry, such as ventral striatum, dorsomedial midbrain, amygdala, and hippocampus, were found to correlate with chills intensity.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section)

Interestingly, they found that activations in reward regions were not correlated with “the more mildly pleasant emotion associated with consonance.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) In other words, participants’ neural reward circuitry lit up during especially moving moments in music but remained silent when participants were listening to music that was merely pleasant.

In addition to neural activity, the researchers discuss chemical responses that are often related to reward. Mori and Iwanaga cite a study by Salimpoor et al., which found that chills were associated with reward-related dopamine release. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Abstract” section) Blood and Zatorre cite a paper by Olmstead and Franklin that connects the aforementioned PAG to endorphin and other endogenous opioids. (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) Dopamine and endorphins are both related to our subjective experience of reward.

The literature on reward systems is deep, and the papers I’m covering here only touch the surface. Nevertheless, they give us enough to establish the link between reward and peak aesthetic experience. The natural follow-up question is, what does our reward response do in peak aesthetic experience? How does it contribute?

Peak aesthetic experience and pleasure

It should be no surprise that our reward systems are associated with pleasure.

“Intensely pleasurable emotions are accompanied by activity in neural systems underlying reward/motivation . . . [For example,] the pleasant experience of chocolate consumption in humans has been found to be correlated with activity in [neural reward regions].” (Blood and Zatorre, “Abstract” section)

Blood and Zatorre’s PET scans suggest links between peak aesthetic experience, participant’s reward systems, and participant pleasure responses. For example, during peak aesthetic experience, participants’ brains activated in regions “rich in opioid receptors.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section)

“As intensity of [subjectively reported] chills increased, cerebral blood flow increases and decreases were observed in brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal . . . These 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)

Further, Blood and Zatorre’s scans detected changes in participants’ brains’ amygdala activity. They cite studies linking changes in amygdala activity to both anticipation of reward and — important for the topic of pleasure — states of euphoria. (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section)

Lastly, based on the activity detected by their scans, Blood and Zatorre suggest that “activation of the reward system by music may maximize pleasure, not only by activating the reward system but also by simultaneously decreasing activity in brain structures associated with negative emotions.” (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) In other words, peak aesthetic experience may boost positive emotion and suppress negative emotion at the same time.

We’ll talk more about audience’s subjective feeling of peak aesthetic experience in a post to follow. For now, it’s enough to say that our reward systems form a significant part of the link between peak aesthetic experience and pleasure. When the T-Rex roars (or Darcy appears) and we feel that exquisite thrill, it’s these systems that are at play.

Peak aesthetic experience and attention

Reward systems don’t just influence pleasure. They also command our attention. Citing a 2015 paper by Schaeffer and 1967 research by Simon, Schoeller and Perlovsky state:

“The aesthetic experience, in addition to being related to knowledge-acquisition, involves two components, a hedonistic dimension and an attentional component . . . Indeed, one and the other are strongly related since emotions have attentional properties.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Qualitative study (narratology and phenomenology)” section) (Emphasis mine.)

Blood and Zatorre observe that amygdala modulations have been associated with anticipation, (Blood and Zatorre, “Discussion” section) and anticipation, of course, guides attention.

This is the factor in peak aesthetic experiences that keeps us locked in to a story late at night, turning page after page long after we were supposed to be asleep. When Dr. Grant watches the T-Rex attack the children’s car and realizes that they are going to die unless he steps in to rescue them, we as an audience are totally hooked. Our attention zeroes in on the story moment, and all else disappears.

Peak aesthetic experience and memory

Finally, we come to the last missing piece that explains how peak moments are burned so indelibly into our minds. Through the activation of our reward systems, we’re already amped up on pleasure neurochemicals, attention focused to a fine point of anticipation. In this already highly-tuned state, our reward systems (and thus peak aesthetic experience) directly influence our brain’s memory and learning.

Pelowski cites a 1991 study by Martin and Labott that found “correlation between tears and deepened recall of individual experience.” (Pelowski, “Meaning/understanding” section) Participants remembered moments that had brought them to tears. Schoeller and Perlovsky cite studies demonstrating that when participant reward systems were artificially suppressed, both chills and memory were suppressed as well. (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Aesthetic chills” section) Peak aesthetic experience, reward, and memory correlate together directly. When one goes up or down, so do the others.

This is why those story moments stick with us. It’s not just the cool special effects or the physical attractiveness of the romance interest. (Although those things aren’t bad . . . ) Rather, the mix of story elements that creates peak aesthetic experiences causes specific reactions in our neural hardware, which make absorbing those moments into memory much easier.


Let’s summarize what we’ve learned.

In peak aesthetic experience, audience reward systems go into overdrive. Activation of reward circuitry results in pleasure responses that — depending on the genre and the location in the story — manifest as thrill or joy. Narrative drive spikes as audience attention is hooked. And, with pleasure and attention so modulated, audience’s brains are primed to remember the moment long after the story has finished.

What does this mean for storytellers?

I hope you won’t think I’m being too pretentious when I say that peak aesthetic experience is a way to legacy. If you want key moments in your story (and thus your story as a whole) to be remembered, to be indelibly burned into audiences’ minds, peak aesthetic experience is the way to do it.

Onward . . .

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