The subjective awareness of peak experience

Jul 3, 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: When audiences have peak aesthetic experiences, they move from tension to release, often experiencing interaction of both happiness and sadness and having a sense of profundity and connectedness.

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 the subjective sensations, emotions, and compulsions we feel.

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 an earlier post, we explored how peak aesthetic experience can cause co-activation of antagonistic physical systems. We can be both physiologically aroused, experiencing intensity and action-readiness while, at the same time, our bodies can be attempting to give us physiological relief and calm us down.

When we talked about our reward systems, we discussed how those systems can produce pleasure and even euphoria in peak aesthetic experience.

Let’s put those pieces together and sketch out a likely scenario for our subjective experience of these physiological responses. It appears we experience physiological arousal, euphoria, and calming in a curve as follows:

  1. First, as we approach peak aesthetic experience, arousal and intensity are increasing. Our reward systems are in anticipation mode. Though we may not be consciously thinking it at the time, we’ll be feeling tension.
  2. When we reach the breakthrough moment, we hit the peak of the curve. Cognitively, our minds flip to a new schema. Physiologically, the antagonistic systems of arousal and relief fire together. We experience this as simultaneous intensity and relief. Our reward systems trigger pleasure, insight, or euphoria. We may get chills or feel like crying.
  3. Then, as the curve moves out from the peak moment, relief takes over. We experience physiological calming and catharsis. Tears may flow, chills may come, and we may become aware of the feeling of having been moved.

This is a generalization and simplification, of course, but it’s a handy mental model.

Happiness and sadness

The emotional content of peak aesthetic experiences is rich and varied.


One key component of the emotional mix resulting from peak aesthetic experience is happiness.

  • Menninghaus et al. surveyed participants, asking them to recall a moving event in fiction or in life. (Menninghaus, “Study 1: questionnaire and procedure” section) They found that 27% of their interview participants reported joy as the emotion they experienced in a moving situation. These reports of joy were most correlated with moving own-life events (marriages, births, etc.), as opposed to fiction or news events. (Menninghaus, “Study 1: emotions experienced in episodes of being moved” section)
  • In a separate study, when asked to associate peak aesthetic experiences with key concepts, Menninghaus et al.’s participants chose terms like “warm,” “wide,” “elevated,” “soft,” and “pleasant.” (Menninghaus, “Study 3: discussion” section)
  • Pelowski connects peak moments with catharsis and a feeling of harmony and pleasure. (Pelowski, “‘Aesthetic’/insightful experience” section)
  • Schoeller and Perlovsky cite studies linking chill-eliciting stimuli with mood improvement. (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “‘Aesthetic’/insightful experience” section)


Curiously, while peak aesthetic experiences involve happiness, they also involve the opposite: sadness.

In Menninghaus et al.’s study, they found that 43% of their participants reported experiencing sadness in moving situations. Sadness was reported most frequently among survey respondents who chose to report on moving events from fiction. (Menninghaus, “Study 1: emotions experienced in episodes of being moved” section) They also mention a sense of nostalgia or poignancy as a result of being moved. (Menninghaus, “Introduction” section)

Mori and Iwanaga found that participants perceived sadness when responding to tears-inducing songs. And, even chills-inducing songs, which had a happy element to them, were tinged with sadness. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Abstract” section)

Wassiliwizky et al. discuss research showing a link between tears and sadness and positive evaluations of films:

“This peculiar phenomenon has been explained by the fact that being moved, although encompassing negative emotional ingredients such as sadness, is an overall pleasurable emotional state.” (Wassiliwizky, “Introduction” section)

Mixed emotion

This mix of happiness and sadness appears to be a hallmark of peak aesthetic experiences.

We’ve talked before about mixed valence as an elicitor of peak aesthetic experience. When the content of a story, for example, has both happy and sad elements at play in an important moment, it’s more likely to elicit peak aesthetic experience.

Here, we see mixed happiness and sadness as the emotional result of that elicitor.

  • Menninghaus et al. found that “both the sad and the joyful variants of being moved showed a coactivation of positive and negative affect.” (Emphasis mine.) (Menninghaus, “Abstract” section)
  • Mori and Iwanaga found that participants perceived chills-eliciting songs as both happy and sad. (Mori and Iwanaga, “Abstract” section)
  • According to Wassiliwizky et al., “the mixture of a predominant emotional component, for example, sadness, with its emotional antidote” was a key factor in moving experience. (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Interaction of mixed emotion

It’s not exactly clear how these emotions stack on top of one another.

On the one hand, Menninghaus et al. discuss how in prototypically moving events like funerals and reunions, emotions tend to oscillate back and forth between happiness and sadness, rather than occurring at exactly the same time. On the other hand, as we’ve looked at before, a significant factor in eliciting peak aesthetic experience is simultaneous co-occurrence of conflicting responses.

How can we resolve these apparently conflicting claims? There seem to be few possibilities.

  1. First, the perceived coactivation that the researchers discuss may, upon closer inspection, reveal itself to be merely oscillation all along. It may be the case that peak aesthetic experiences result in feelings that switch back and forth between positive and negative valence.
  2. Second, it may be that genuine coactivation is an intrinsic part of peak aesthetic experience. In this case, the oscillation that Menninghaus et al. describe may have periods of overlap during which people are more likely to experience peak emotion.
  3. Third, it may be that peak aesthetic experience can result from either coactivation or oscillation, given the right circumstances.

Regardless of the mechanism, we can safely conclude that peak aesthetic experience involves mixed feelings.

Other emotions

In addition to positive and negative valence, there are a couple of other things in the emotional spectrum worth mentioning.

Bigger than oneself

One is that peak aesthetic experiences have been associated with a sense of “other agency.” (Menninghaus, “Introduction” section)

  • We discussed before how, leading up to the breakthrough moment, we experience a sense of powerlessness.
  • 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)
  • When discussing weddings, funerals, and births, Menninghaus et al. 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)

I suspect that these findings are all playing on the same core feeling, a feeling that something bigger than oneself is happening, and we don’t have control over it.


Lastly, being moved has been identified with a feeling of certainty or importance. (Menninghaus, “Introduction” section)

We’ve talked before about how peak aesthetic experience can be associated with how significantly people are invested in the characters or concepts at play. Values at the top of our cognitive hierarchies can help elicit peak aesthetic experience.

Further, we’ve talked about how significance and intensity are correlated. When something that matters a lot to us is threatened, that will result in a stronger response.

Here, we can see how these factors come together in a resulting emotional experience. Peak aesthetic experience plays on the things that are important to us, and it can result in an emotional sense of significance. When we have peak aesthetic experience, we can have a profound feeling that something important has happened.


While it may not always be consciously felt, empathy seems to be an important component of peak aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky et al., in fact, claim its role is “crucial.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Feelings of connection

Wassiliwizky et al. discuss evidence suggesting that our chills and tears responses have a function in social bonding. For example, they cite research theorizing that “chills (which are readily associated with feeling cold) might . . . urge [people] to seek close social (and bodily) contact with others and thereby re-establish social bonds.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) Further, “tears have been shown to increase the perceived helplessness of the crier and a stronger willingness in the observer to provide help.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section) In other words, a feeling of chills encourages us to draw close to others, while the expression of tears motivates others to draw close to us.

In a previous post, I talked about how empathy for characters can help elicit peak aesthetic experience. Emotional empathy, I believe, is the other half of that coin. Not only does empathy elicit peak aesthetic experience, but peak aesthetic experience can also result in subjective feelings of connectedness.

Schoeller and Perlovsky, for example, found that their study participants reported what the researchers deemed “strong and unusual empathy.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Phenomenology” section)

“Aesthetic chills induced by narrative structures seem to be related to the pinnacle of the story, to have a significant calming effect and subjects describe a strong empathy for the characters.(Schoeller and Perlovsky, “Abstract” section) (Emphasis mine.)

Being moved to act

I mentioned in a previous post that peak aesthetic experience involves physiological arousal. We “gear up for action.” Subjectively, empathetic peak aesthetic experience can result in this “gearing up” manifesting in a physical sensation of being moved to act on another’s behalf.

Menninghaus et al. cite Frijda, Kuipers, and ter Schure, who observed “approaching and attending as the most distinctive action-readiness states of being moved.” (Menninghaus, “Introduction” section) (Emphasis theirs.) Citing previous studies, they claim that “being emotionally moved has been shown to entail action-readiness states of approach and attendance and to facilitate prosocial acts of bonding and helping.” (Menninghaus, “Study 1: Cognitive appraisal patterns” section) Wassiliwizky et al. also suggest a link between this heightened physiological arousal and empathy:

“The present findings of heightened physiological arousal can be interpreted as lending support to the consistent reports of physiological activation when witnessing and empathizing with others in need.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

In peak aesthetic experience, we may feel both an emotional component of empathy and a physiological sensation of being moved to act on others’ behalf.

Changing behavior

And, it’s not just a feeling. Evidence demonstrates that peak aesthetic experience not only results in feelings of empathy but also influences behavior. Wassiliwizky et al. cite a couple of examples:

“Stel et al. (2008) demonstrated that participants showed significantly greater readiness to make generous charitable donations if they were emotionally moved beforehand . . . Likewise, in a dictator game paradigm, Fukui and Tyoshima (2014) found enhanced empathy and altruism in participants who experienced music-elicited chills before playing the dictator game.” (Wassiliwizky, “Discussion” section)

Being exposed to peak aesthetic experience can influence a person to behave in ways that are more pro-social than their baseline.


What have we learned? In this, the (I believe) last post in the series on peak aesthetic experience, we’ve talked about the subjective feelings elicited by peak moments. First, we talked about the arc of physical sensation, from tension to euphoria and release. Next, we looked at happiness and sadness and how these feelings mix in unique ways in peak experience. We also touched briefly on feelings of other agency and importance. Lastly, we discussed feelings of empathy and being moved to act on others’ behalf.

I hope this series has been helpful to you as you think about how to craft the stories you tell. If you’ve found anything interesting, useful, insightful, or just plain wrong, don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know. (Also, please do report typos.) You can reach me on Twitter or email me at natelistrom at icloud dot com.

And as always: Onward . . .

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