Why do books make us feel emotions?

For my part, I do not need to be convinced that books make us feel emotions. I’ve felt the full range of them over my years of reading. I will continue to experience familiar and unfamiliar emotions as I engage in writing that navigates the fragility of human experience. I am fascinated by the how and the why. How are the words printed on paper or displayed on screens causing the metaphorical tides to 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 go deeper.

A study Posted in Borders focuses on the cognitive and affective processes involved in reading. They found that ToM regions of the brain are closely associated with 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 hold beliefs different from one’s own. When we read, we basically do this same thing. We understand that the characters we read are fictional. We can assess their mental state in the context of their history and know that it is different from ours.

We can also simultaneously engage in the emotional arcs of the story as they bring out our feelings. These feelings, especially when it comes to stories with negative emotional valence, arise for two main reasons: moral reasoning and empathy. We sympathize with the characters and try to understand whether the consequences of their actions are morally justified or not. It is an inherently emotionally charged process. Our amygdala is particularly solicited in the face of negative emotions.

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

Now that we’ve briefly explained why reading makes us feel, let’s look at how writers use this phenomenon. Indian theorists give us a glimpse of this. The Rasa Theory of Indian Aesthetics shows us how writers evoke our emotions. To understand this, let’s look at the 4 main categories of rasas:

I. Sthayibhava: permanent or dominant moods
ii. Viabhicharibhava: fleeting or transient emotions
iii. vibhava: stimuli that bring out emotions
iv. Anubhava: effect or response of emotions

In his book NatyashastraBharata Muni implies that the mixture of vibhava, anubhavaand viabhichari leads to sthyibhava. This means that the mixture of fleeting emotions, stimuli and responses brings out the reader’s dominant emotions. 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 are meant to experience it rasas without the overwhelming context of our lived experience. We should, ideally, be able to read these works as impartial spectators. And while we always tend to bring our own biases to the table, we can always gain a lot from being absorbed in someone’s story. When we read, we can observe humans interacting with each other and the world around them, from a safe space. We can learn from their shortcomings, their moral failings, and their occasional rise to what we consider heroism. In fiction, we can identify and reassure ourselves. We may also be introduced to ideas, perspectives, and experiences different from our own. And we can give differing opinions a fighting chance within the context of the story in which they are told.

Our reading brain searches for clues to bring out our feelings. Writers use techniques honed with practice to pull them even further. We, as readers, are left at the mercy of these forces. We feel emotions, sometimes fleeting and sometimes intense. Sometimes books can also make us feel indirect emotions, as Danika Ellis’s essay points out. But while we are feeling these emotions, we are also moving towards understanding. We come closer to a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. A study was conducted at the University of Toronto linking reading and empathy by professors at the University of Toronto. They found that frequent readers of fiction scored higher on some measures of empathy.

It is strangely comforting to me how this often solitary activity can invite community and belonging into our lives. We feel seen, identify with others, and open metaphorical and literal doors to people we previously perceived as very different from us. We can come together to learn and take action for causes that affect us all in varying degrees. Reading and letting ourselves be felt can be both an invitation to take care and teach us how to channel it.

Colin L. Johnson