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Why do books make us feel emotions?

For example, I don’t need to be convinced that books make us feel emotions. I’ve felt the whole spectrum of it in the years I’ve been a reader. I will continue to feel familiar and unfamiliar emotions as I engage in writing that navigates the fragility of the human experience. I am fascinated by the how and why. How are words printed on paper or displayed on screens that make the metaphorical tides rise and fall in my heart? What part of an author’s toolkit allows them to do this? Why do some books make us feel more than others? Let’s delve deeper.

A study published in borders focuses on the cognitive and affective processes involved in reading. They found that ToM regions of the brain are closely linked to reading stories that bring out negative emotions. theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, and to know that others have beliefs that differ from your own. When we read, we are essentially doing exactly this. We understand that the characters we read about are fictional. We can judge their mental state in the context of his story and know that it is different from ours.

We can also simultaneously engage with the emotional arcs of the story as they bring out our feelings. These feelings, especially when it comes to stories with negative emotional valence, appear for two main reasons: moral reasoning and empathy. We empathize with the characters and try to figure out whether the consequences of their actions are moral or not. This is an inherently emotionally charged process. Our amygdala is mainly involved in dealing with negative emotions.

It is also interesting to note that the anterior superior temporal cortex has two very different cognitive functions: sentence processing and social-emotional processing. As we break down the sentence structure to understand its meaning, our social-emotional centers are also taxed. This provides further evidence in how reading makes us feel all feelings.

Now that we’ve briefly discussed why reading makes us feel, let’s take a look at how writers take advantage of this phenomenon. Indian theorists give us some insight into this. The Rasa Theory of Indian Aesthetics shows us how writers evoke our emotions. To understand, let’s take a look at the 4 broad categories of: rasas

i. Sthayibhava: permanent or dominant moods
ii. Vyabhicharibhava: fleeting or transient emotions
iii. Vibhava: stimuli that bring out emotions
iv. Anubhava: effect or reaction of emotions

In his book NatyashastraBharata Muni implies that the mixing of vibhava, anubhavaand vyabhicharic leads to sthyibhava† This means that the intermingling of fleeting emotions, stimuli, and reactions brings out dominant emotions in the reader. Indian writers, especially poets, have used this knowledge to write in a way that helps the reader experience the full range of human emotions.

As Keith Oatley writes in his… articlewe should experience this one rasas without the overwhelming context of our lived experience. Ideally, we should be able to read these works as impartial spectators. And even though we always tend to put our own biases on the table, we can still gain a lot from delving into someone’s story. When we read, we can observe people interacting with each other and the world around them from a safe space. We can learn from their flaws, moral flaws, and the occasional rise to what we consider heroism. In fiction we can identify ourselves and be reassured. We may also be introduced to ideas, perspectives, and experiences that are different from our own. And we can give different opinions a fighting chance in the context of the story in which they are told.

Our reading brain looks for cues to bring out our feelings. Writers use techniques honed with practice to bring them out even more. We, as readers, are at the mercy of these forces. We feel emotions, sometimes fleeting and sometimes intense. Sometimes books can also make us feel emotions second hand, as described in Danika Ellis’s essay† But as we feel these emotions, we also come closer to understanding. We come closer to a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. A study was conducted at the University of Toronto to establish a link between reading and empathy by University of Toronto professors. They found that frequent readers of fiction scored higher on certain measures of empathy.

It is strangely comforting to me how this often solitary activity can invite community and connection in our lives. We feel seen, identify with others, and open metaphorical and literal doors to people we previously thought were completely different from us. We can come together to learn and act for causes that affect us all to varying degrees. Reading and making ourselves feel can be both an invitation to concern and teach us how to channel it.

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