Aug 21 2008 3:56pm

Playing With Your Emotions: The Literary Version

I’ll let you into a little secret of mine, which is this: I’m the sort of dude that gets wrung out about emotional scenes in books and movies and TV. I date this tendency back to a specific event, which was the birth of my daughter. Before then, I could read or watch a scene of complete heartbreak and go “eh”; after her birth, I get choked up watching very special episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. I hate it, man. Among the reasons I hate it is that when I go out in public to do a reading, there are entire books of mine that I can’t read aloud, because I can’t get through them without sobbing. And, you know, look: When you can't get through something you’ve read a hundred times because you actually wrote it without turning into a blubbering fool, there’s something wrong with you.

That said, I’ve often wondered if one entertainment medium is better at wrenching emotions out of people than others. Apparently so had scientists Mbemba Jabbi, Jojanneke Bastiaansen and Christian Keysers, so they set out to discover whether visual and written mediums had any difference in how they were able to evoke emotional responses (specifically, the emotion of disgust).

Their results, published in a paper with sales-grabbing title “A Common Anterior Insula Representation of Disgust Observation, Experience and Imagination Shows Divergent Functional Connectivity Pathways,” show that both affect us powerfully, because both written and visual representations affect the same parts of the brain:

“We placed our participants in an fMRI scanner to measure their brain activity while we first showed our subject short 3s movie clips of an actor sipping from a cup and then looking disgusted,” said Christian Keysers. “Later on, we asked them to read and imagine short emotional scenarios; for instance, walking along a street, bumping into a reeking, drunken man, who then starts to retch, and realizing that some of his vomit had ended up in your own mouth. Finally, we measured their brain activity while the participants tasted unpleasant solutions in the scanner.”
“Our striking result,” said Keysers, “is that in all three cases, the same location of the anterior insula lit up. The anterior insula is the part of the brain that is the heart of our feeling of disgust...What this means is that whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens: we activate our bodily representations of what it feels like to be disgusted—and that is why reading a book and viewing a movie can both make us feel as if we literally feel what the protagonist is going through.”

In a way, this is a relief for me. Although I am a writer, some part of my brain felt like I should be able to hold myself together a little better reading a book than watching a movie (particularly, you know, if it’s my book). Now that I know it’s all working on the same part of the brain, I’ll feel more free to blubber with abandon. I mean, even more than I already do. And in a writerly sense, it’s good to know that my favorite medium doesn’t suffer any disadvantage when it comes to visceral impact. Because, you know. It’s not enough that I blubber uncontrollably when I read my work. I really want to make you blubber uncontrollably, too. I think some of you may have already figured out that part.

1. Timesink
Yeah, daughters will do that to you. Oh, and your books too, John, thanks a helluva lot.
2. marciepooh
Audio works as well on me. I finally listened to The Sagan Diaries last week and I was on the verge of tears. (It upsets the dog when I cry so I worked hard not to.)
Pablo Defendini
3. pablodefendini
The first number in Cats Don't Dance always gets me (go to 3:34 in the clip. Chokin' up already). Don't know why. Damn you, Randy Newman.
Sandi Kallas
4. Sandikal
I cannot watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (the animated version) without sobbing when the Whos all come out of their Who Houses and sing even though everything is gone. Yahoo doray!
5. L. M. May
This is such a relief to hear about--same thing happened to me after having kids. Explains why both the book and video endings of THE LORAX now reduce me to tears, to my great embarassment.

Oh, yeah, and Sandikal is right about HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Curse you, Dr. Seuss.

And Jonathan Coulton's song "Space Doggity" about Laika gets to me too. I try not to listen to it when other people are around to spare them my weepiness.

But does this problem go away when the kids are off to college?
Tara Chang
6. tlchang
I totally relate to that. After I had children *so* many things affected me which had not before. I still cannot watch Bambi or Dumbo without feeling completely wrenched and teary (luckily the kids are older now and I'm no longer subjected to Disney sobfests). Repeated viewings or readings do not help lessen the emotive effects, so I can totally see why it might be (even more?) so with your own work - especially if you were writing from an emotional place to start with. (At least you don't get to add the magnifying effects of PMS on top of it!)
7. Matthew Sanborn Smith
After my son was born it was that goddamned Cat's in the Cradle song!
8. JeremyG
You mean emotions happen in... *the brain*? Shocking!

I'm sorry, but there's just too much bad neuroimaging going around, and the news reporting is only worse. The fact that our *experiences* of this emotion are similar across these different types of stimuli practically guarantees that some portion of the brain or other will be active during all three kinds of events. About the only thing going for this paper, after a quick scan of the abstract and results, is the fact that they predicted insula activation, and even that is not particularly surprising.

Actually, the more interesting part to me is the functional connectivity analysis, which shows how wider brain networks operate on different kinds of experiences of disgust. Turns out that observation involves less of a broad, multimodal network than either experience or imagination. Your stories probably make us feel *more* emotion than merely watching some stranger go through the same thing!
Jeffrey Richard
9. neutronjockey
JeremyG You're analyzing entirely too much. You should have read this entire post as: Sclazi-Fiction! Now with vomit on your shoe! In outer space!
10. nlowery
I'd love to see a study on brain activity after having children. I'm convinced that it sensitizes us somehow.

I made the mistake of reading my kids "Charlotte's Web." When I got to the part where Charlotte dies alone in the empty fairgrounds, I just lost it. Tears running down my face as I tried to hang in there and finish it for them. My four-year-old (I am not kidding here) reached over and touched my arm and said, "It's okay, Mom, it's just a story."
Patrick Shepherd
11. hyperpat
Actually, touching my emotions is the marker I use to separate the merely good from the great. When a novel or movie manages to turn on my tear factory, or my anger pot, or any other strong emotion, it tells me that there's something special in the work, that it has something that can speak to what is human. Works like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Winter of Our Discontent, Keye's Flowers for Algernon, Zelazny's A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Pangborn's Davy, Stewart's Earth Abides, Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, or the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey (I defy anyone to watch that space station docking scene and not be emotionally affected) and even this summer's Wall-E, these all have that extra-special something.

Is one medium better than others for being able to do this? I don't really think so. Regardless of the medium, such touchstones are achieved via the story, and that story must find the universal truths that all humans experience. Clearly, this can also be overdone, become a maudlin tear-jerker via manipulation rather than genuine feelings prompted by real images, but these are fairly easily recognizable, and don't subtract from the truly great work's ability to communicate with our inner spirit.
Darren Hawkins
12. wincingatlight
I've started to notice an increase in emotional response as I've gotten older (I'm 37 now).

I surprised myself the other day by choking up while watching that scene in _Breaking Away_ where Barbara Barrie shows Dennis Christopher her "secret" passport. I still can't pinpoint what it was about that "chase your dream" moment that got to me.

I'm telling myself the seals on the waterworks just degrade over time.
13. curlygirl
I totally got this way after my son was born. It went so far that I couldn't read a book where a child was hurt or in any way mistreated. I'd get to that part and just put it down. You'd be surprised how much fiction there is out there that use kids as convenient victims. Of course, I was always that way about books where dogs get hurt...
Melissa Ann Singer
14. masinger
While I fully admit that there are _commercials_ that make me choke up (Hallmark is particularly good at that), I find that in movies I am sometimes so aware of being manipulated via imagery and music that in addition to experiencing the "required" emotion I get pissed off that the moviemakers for making me feel that way.

This doesn't happen in every film or even close to every film, thank goodness, or I'd be a lot more bitter than I already am.

It also doesn't happen with TV shows or with books. I rarely see the strings when I'm immersed in reading--even though I sometimes help put the strings in there in the first place!
Sandi Kallas
15. Sandikal
I find that it's harder for me to get choked up over books than movies, music, TV, or movie trailers. I'm such a sucker that an inspirational movie trailer will get me every time. There haven't been very many books that have done it to me, and wasn't literature the original subject?

So, for books that choked me up:

"Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow had me crying and holding my breath. I have a young teen son and I was an idealistic teen myself and my daughter had just graduated high school when 9/11 happened. It got me on too many levels.

My heart stood still at the climactic scene in "Beloved" by Toni Morrison

"The Geography of Love" by Glenda Burgess made me cry because it was a memoir of a woman who was about my age when she lost her husband to cancer. They were married about the same length of time as my husband and I have been. Talk about hitting close to home!

The relationship between Sol and his daughter Rachel in "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons was another tear-jerker.
Ryan V
16. JesterJoker
Gotta say, Scalzi, admitting that your own writing affects you like that makes me all impatient to start reading The Sagan Diaries. 8)

Yes, Sol and Rachel! Brr.

It isn't often that I do get the teary eyes, especially on TV where I can see the manipulation with no problem at all.

But books? It seems to happen all the bloody time.

A tiny bit ago, Sansa's reaction in A Game of Thrones to you-know-what-if-you-read-it did that, even though I had been quite spoiled. The rarity of /that/ surprised me.

I needed a break after that and grabbed Revelation Space. Much more pleasant to read about Triumvir Volyova, really. ;)
Eirin Saeves
17. Eirin
Rather than the disgust-angle, it'd be interesting to see if, after having become a parent, one becomes more sentimental...and why?

I'm not a parent myself, but judging by the responses here, a certain capability for, or drive toward, sentimentality seems to kick in with parenthood.

I can see how this would happen for a woman, what with pregnancy-hormones an' all, but how to measure when sentimentality hits Daddy?

Is there a sort of chemical reaction that sparks the "Daddy-brain"?
Sammy Jay
18. Malebolge
The raw emotion angles aren't that much of an issue for me, as of right now- what is difficult to get through, though, is an embarrassing scene. Be it television, audiobook, book-book or even a videogame cinematic, those moments where a protagonist or sympathetic character does something horrendously embarrassing, humiliating himself in front of his loved ones in the process, leave me with a clenched stomach and a deep desire to turn away.

While I can happily (well, not happily) sit through Hostel, throw a chick flick my way and I'll excuse myself 'to go to the bathroom' right around the point where the plucky male lead is making a fool of himself over a misunderstanding. If it happens in a book, I'll read a little faster and try and skim over the details.
Jamie Grove
19. jamiegrove
I do it too John, but in my case it's the quality of the work that sets me crying. Oh, and I suppose I did cry today when my 4 year old showed me a lego model he designed that was better than _anything_ I've ever built...

blub blub blub :)
Carlos Hernandez
20. Yokozuna
See, I don't have kids, and I've always been like this. I can play the cynical bastard with the best of 'em, but man, one of those old Cotton commercials come on... you know the ones:

The touch.
The feel.
The fabric of our lives.

...and the tissues start flying out of the box like a flock of released doves.

What I find interesting is that most humans -- at least the ones posting here -- seem to require children, and/or half a lifetime, to start becoming vulnerable to pathos, even when it's cloying or manipulative. Jeez, I guess I'd become a shaking, perspiring blob of sentiment were I ever to spawn.
Gabriele Campbell
21. G-Campbell
I'm female, 46 and childfree, and I've always been like that. Poetry and opera are the worst triggers, but a scene in a book can do it as well - there's a fair number of them that get me every time. Movies not so much because I rarely watch them, but Boromir's death in LOTR and Cyrano's last lines made me cry.

I sometimes tear up writing a scene as well, and I knew I was on my way when I got an email about a short story I posted online that made the reader (a man who said he didn't tear up easily) cry. If I can do that, I'm doing something right.
22. Tim R
Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor.

How can you not get hit right in the water works by those girls, I love them to pieces...
23. that_guy

I always thought this was the case for me because we lost the first kids we had (twins, pregnancy ended too early ...). But apparently spawning successfully on the first try will do it too. That's a bit of a comfort .. seeing as how I can't get through any TV-show without getting all misty-eyed nowadays *sigh*
Eirin Saeves
24. Eirin
Be it television, audiobook, book-book or even a videogame cinematic, those moments where a protagonist or sympathetic character does something horrendously embarrassing, humiliating himself in front of his loved ones in the process, leave me with a clenched stomach and a deep desire to turn away

Heh. I thought it was just me.
Weird that "watching" (on TV, in a book, or similar) character humiliate him/herself can almost be physically painful.
25. rogerothornhill
If age, or parenthood (or both) is good for anything, it's for breaking down the barriers. We should all be all ages, all attitudes, and both/all genders. There are so many stupid barriers most of us--especially the educated ones--set up between the ages of 12 and 39. Basta. Feel what you feel and stop constructing an explanation to account for it.

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