DRAFT: DO NOT QUOTE
Why Do We Believe?
How and why do our brains believe a fiction? In many ways, my eight-year old daughter's comment shows how all the four factors in the willing suspension of disbelief happen together. "When I read a book, I sort of feel like I'm invisible and walking around unseen with the things or people in the book (a Hobbit is just a thing). When I read it, just word by word, then it's just like reading a book. But when I get into a stage of reading, sort of, then it feels like a dream."
First, being invisible--that's the loss of one's own body experience. Second, walking around with the things and people--that's the indeterminate space that replaces a clearly bounded "inside my skin" and "outside my skin." Then, one does not disbelieve; one accepts the reality of Hobbits and the book "feels like a dream." (We'll come back to the matter of reading word by word when it's "just" reading a book.) And finally, just as in some dreams, we have emotions toward the events, although they are "just a dream" or "just a story." We feel fear or sadness or anger as though the events we see or read about were real.
"I dissolve into all things"
Of these four, the easiest to to understand is losing track of our own bodies and their position in space. We do that all the time. Consider your glasses or, if you don't wear glasses, your shoes. Ordinarily, I put on my glasses in the morning. I may feel them in place for a second or two, and then, for the rest of the day, I'm unaware of them. If, on the other hand, one of the lenses picks up a piece of lint that puts a spot of white in my field of view, the I I feel my glasses again. The same thing happens with shoes. I'm unaware of them unless I get a pebble in my shoe or my feet begin to hurt.
Neurologists explain the phenomenon as "habituation." The neurons that tell me about my glasses, fire and fire when I first put them on, telling me there is a foreign object on my nose. But I choose not to do anything about that foreign object, and eventaully those neurons, in effect, get tired. They don't fire any more, or more precisely, they settle into their resting rate of fire (Kalat 383-4).
The same kind of thing happens when I am sitting in a theater when I am watching a movie or a play. If I am not bored, if my attention is on the stage or screen, I don't feel my back and legs in the seat. In the same way, sitting in an armchair reading, I don't feel my body--so long as the book does not seem boring. Then, of course, I get restless. And, if I have to act, if I need to get up for another glass of wine or for some other reason, then, of course, I quickly become aware of my body and the effort to move it
John Kihlstrom and his associates have developed a similar thesis, going back to William James' observation that every thought is part of a personal consciousness. The universal conscious fact, according to James, is not "feelings exist" or "thoughts exist" but "I think" and "I feel." "An episode of ongoing experience, thought, and action becomes conscious if and only if, a link is made between the mental representation of the event itself and some mental representation of the self as the agent or experiencer of that event" (Kihlstrom and Tobias 213). With a movie, play, or book, I am aware that I, emphasis I, am experiencing that movie, play, or book. I do not think of myself as consciously experiencing armchair, reading lamp, theater seat, or exit sign.
But, as our experience of shoes or glasses shows, we forget about our bodies in lots of situations besides the absorbing of literature. I can forget my body when I am concentrating on some intellectual problem, like trying to fix my computer's misbehavior. Then I will sit so long in one position that I ache when I move, yet I remain unaware of my body until I move. The same thing happens with our bodies as a whole. 99% of the time, I don't think about holding myself upright when I sit or stand. I just do it. My brain and spine take care of my posture without my having to think about it. The same thing happens when I am engrossed in a play or a movie. I sit in my seat, often not the most comfortable seat, but I can forget I am sitting in even an uncomfortable seat. I don't feel it unless I stop to think about it, unless the seat gets too uncomfortable or I get tired of the play and restless. Literally, I become unable to "rest" in place without concerning myself with my body position.
So too with the other elements of the "willing suspension": losing the distance between self and other; ignoring probabilties and verisimilitude. I am thinking of mediation, hypnosis, or various religious experiences of visons, healing, or miracles. The willing suspension happens when people give themselves over to the charisma of a leader (think of Hitler's nighttime rallies), or to the persuasive rhetoric of advertising and propaganda. I think it happens, more or less, when we respond to a Rorschach inkblot. It certainly happens at moments in the transference of a psychoanalysis,
"Absorbed, unaware of surroundings"
We called the second element in the willing suspension of disbelief , becoming unaware of the physical world around one's reading or watching. Is there anything the neurologists can tell us? Unfortunately, they have not been steaming up the wards and laboratories trying to figure out Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief.
There is, however, a related phenomenon to which neurologists have paid a good deal of attention: meditation as practiced by various religions. Neurologists have been looking at meditation because it has some promise as a therapy. Also, I think, in the U.S. during the cold and later wars, both government and the media have been actively promoting religion, providing interest in and support for this kind of research (Begley). Unfortunately, a good deal of the research has turned into apologetics and spurious arguments for theistic beliefs (Groopman). In general, though, researchers into "religious experiences" agree that both internal and external stimuli can become depersonalized and derealized in prayer, meditation, or vision (Saver and Rabin).
James Austin, one of the best researchers in the field, discusses in Zen and the Brain the mystical experience of satori or kensho achieved through disciplined Zen meditation. He compares kensho to the way we get absorbed in music, "a momentous event when the whole bodily self drops off" and we think no conscious thoughts. We cease to be aware of our bodies, we sense no boundary between the music and ourselves, yet we perceive it with exceptional clarity (Austin 503). I too can feel that way, not when I am sitting on my heels in a meditation posture, to be sure, but when I watch Citizen Kane or read Hamlet.
Two University of Pennsylvania researchers, Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have conducted SPECT scans on Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns at prayer and written several papers and a book about the altered states of mind they looked at (Newberg, d'Aquili and Rause; Newberg, Alavi, Baime, et al.; Newberg and d'Aquili, "The Neuropsychology of Spiritual Experience") (Newberg and d'Aquili, "The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience"). In a SPECT scan (single photon emission computed tomography), the subject receives an injection of radioactive material whose molecules bind themselves to the sugar molecules that the brain's active neurons are metabolizing. This radioactive material accumulates in these active neurons and emits positrons that a detector catches. A computer then puts the detector's measurements from many different angles together to create a cross-sectional view of the brain in which the active areas are, so to speak, lit up. For studying meditation, one cannot use the more tightly focused MRI procedures (1 mm resolution), because the MRI machine makes a dreadful racket. A SPECT scan has limitations, however. Notably it cannot "see" anything smaller than 5-10 mm, about half the width of a dime CHK CHK. In the brain such a relatively large area contains many thousands of neurons. As a result, a SPECT scan can not specify particular functional areas very well.
Within this poor resolution, though, Newberg and d'Aquili did find special areas of the brain lighting up. Meditation they describe as "a decreased sense or awareness of the boundaries between the self and the external world." They also posit a "holistic operator" that "permits reality to be viewed as a whole or a gestalt." This they locate in the "posterior superior parietal lobe," in the non-dominant hemisphere [77-78]. That is the right hemisphere for most of us and an area above and behind our right ear. This is an area where different sensory percepts from sight, hearing, or touch come together to form coherent multisensory perceptions. There is a good deal of evidence to show that, in general, the right hemisphere does indeed tend to put perceptions together in a holistic way. The left puts things togetehr sequentially or logically (Kalat 400; Fink, Halligan, Marshall, et al.). In this respect, Newberg and d'Aquili find it significant that this area in the right hemisphere, the posterior superior parietal lobe, where it matches an area in the left hemisphere important for logical and grammatical operations. In other words, the area for meditation substitutes a holistic for a verbal relationship to the world.
When the "skilled meditators" meditated, the SPECT scan showed significant increases in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex . This part of the brain lies directly behind one's forehead . It holds systems for planning movements of the limbs and eyes, for something like the classical idea of will, for personality traits, and for deciding what to do or not do--inhibiting. The prefrontal cortex is where the brain does its most advanced thinking. Over evolutionary time it grew and grew until it became so large as to mark humans and other anthropoids off from the other mammals and monkeys (Fuster, "Prefrontal Cortex of the Primate"). Indeed it is what separates the mature adult human from the teenager--I speak as a parent--since the prefrontal lobes do not mature in humans until after adolescence, perhaps as late as the age of twenty-five. (Some neurologists describe teenagery as "sexual hormones without prefrontal cortex." )
The prefrontal cortex, this "advanced" part of the brain, focuses attention both for meditators and, I suppose, for people attending to a play, movie, or book. In their most important finding, d'Aquili and Newberg discovered "significant decreases of brain activity in the area of the [posterior superior parietal lobule]." This would be an area that integrates different sensory modalities, sight, hearing, and so on, to form a total picture of the world. It is also the area by which we differentiate what is us from what is around us. Less activity in this area might very well indicate that the more active the prefrontal cortical areas the less active is the area for differentiating oneself from one's environment, " the posterior superior parietal lobule." In other words, the more intellectually focused you are on the book you are reading, the less you will be aware of the room around you.
A group of Harvard researchers studied the "relaxation response" made famous by Herbert Benson as a way of reducing blood pressure. One can achieve the relaxation response by reciting a mantra (or some nonsense word) to the exclusion of all other stimuli. These researchers were able to use an fMRI by providing their meditators with an audio tape of the sound of the scanner and a written description of the experiment. The meditators "were instructed to practice the mantra with the tape until they could comfortably achieve a meditative state, despite the beeping sound of the scanner." (May I be permitted skepticism?) At any rate, they found significant increases in blood flow to a great many brain areas. Meditation clearly activates neural structures involved in attention and arousal and autonomic control as well as parietal networks involved in visual and auditory perception (Lazar, Bush, Gollub, et al.). But this many areas being activated makes it hard to see what particular systems and circuits might be involved. Possibly practicing the mantra with the tape did not succeed entirely in overcoming the racket an MRI scanner makes.
Austin, the neuroscientist studying Zen meditation, found something more precise, that is, a key area in the thalamus that could be responsible for the shutting down both of one's body awareness and one's awareness of one's body in space. Remember that the thalamus is the gateway through which sensory information passes from eyes, ears, and body to the frontal, thinking cortex.
"It is a momentous event when the whole bodily self drops off," notes Austin. He locates the "posterior thalamus" as the key area, "the smallest voume of nervous tissue where sight, hearing, vestibular [i.e., balance] input, and other vital proprioceptive sensations from the head and body can all be disconnected at one time" (emphasis Austin's). One can magine the thalamus as two hardboiled eggs pressed together to create a flat ("medial") surface between the two convexities (see Austin's diagram at p. 264). The forward part of that central flatness is what sends information to the front of the brain, the conscious, acting, thinking, planning frontal lobe. This forward part receives input from the posterior convexities of the thalamus, a series of cell clusters (nuclei) that convey information from eyes, ears, and body.
Austin specifies three mechanisms which would shut down the output from this precise area. The first closes down the sensory information from the nuclei at the rear of the thalamus, the same thing that happens in sleep.
"The second way to block sensation is to activate the cortex excessively." Specifically, one might do this by activating the surface of the brain just back of the crown of the head. This is a part of the sensory cortex where the body is modeled. For meditation, one might focus on an image or a sound or, perhaps, a koan or a mantra. For literature, one might concentrate intensely on a book, a movie screen, or a stage. Either activity would activate the cortex "excessively."
This excitation increases the metabolic activity of the outer surface of the thalamus, the sides of the two compressed eggs facing the outer sides of the brain. These areas, the reticular nuclei, then generate neurotransmitters (GABA) to inhibit the nuclei in the thalamus that would normally send sensory information to the front brain. The reticular nucleus acts as a "cap" on sensory information that would ordinarily be transmitted to "higher" parts of the brain. In this way the brain prevents overload: the already stimulated cortex, busy with its mantra, doesn't have to receive more. The reflexes for holding head and torso erect, however, since they operate below the level of the thalamus continue. You don't fall over even though your mind is totally "on" a koan or a movie.
The third blockade comes from more ancient parts of the brain, the reticular formation in the midbrain. The midbrain, at the top of the brain stem, is no wider than the tip of your little finger, yet it issues a comlicated mixture of stimulation and inhibition to the thinking and awareness systems of the brain in the large frontal cortex. In particular, its activity inhibits the forward parts of the thalamus. These provide a later stage in the transmission of sensory information from the back of the thalamus forward to the front of that body and thence on to the frontal cortex (Austin 502-04). The end result is to allow this brain to be very excited--hyperattentive to what it is focused on--yet relatively unaware of, and unresponsive to, its environment. This is the meditator's situation, and also , I think, that of the intent reader and the theater- and moviegoer.
Then we experience a positive feedback effect. As a result of all this shutting down of competing sensory inputs, we increase attention to whatever we are concentrating on, be it koan or film. For the meditator, this means that the world is sensed with a sudden reality, a hyperattention, free of conscious thought, which they describe as "enlightenment," satori, or kensho. Something of the same sort, I believe, happens when we "soak up" a story or a drama and completely concentrate on it. It feels really, really real to us.
I think these modest experimental findings (by the so-called "neurotheologists") of brain areas, functions, and systems responsible for meditative attention go some way toward explaining the first two parts of the willing suspension of disbelief. They show that we can, by a conscious, deliberate act of will, shut down some of our normal sensory input. We can "close our ears" or numb our bodies or shut our eyes to the world outside the work of art. We can "numb our bodies."
In a sense, though, what these researchers are saying seems simply commonsensical. If you concentrate on one thing, you pay less attention to other things. If you focus more energy and excitation on one prefrontal function, following the play or story, you reduce the energy and excitation available for other prefrontal functions, like paying attention to your body or to the world around that play or story.
Hence, we could explain the phenomenon of losing track of self and environment another way, as a matter of attention. I pay attention to the play or book and take attention away from my body. In effect, I am saying that we have a finite amount of attention.
One can easily justify this convenient arrangement. The brain is an economical organ. It conserves its energy, paying attention to what needs paying attention to. If a new stimulus appears, we will pay attention to it, as in the rapid cutting of today's television commercials. If there is no novelty in a stimulus, as with my glasses after I have been wearing them a while, the brain turns its attention to more pressing matters: new stimuli that call for new actions. So with watching a play or reading a book. Because of differential coding of space for eye or body-- you can be moving your eyes over a page or a movie screen but unaware of your body position. I pay attention to what I am seeing or reading, and I take attention away from matters that have become less new and less important, namely, my body position or my surroundings-- as in what we have seen as habituation. In general, when we pay intense attention to one thing, other things become unconscious (Shiffrin). Simply, one could say that we have limited psychic energy. When we do one task wholly, we stop doing others as well or even at all.
Perhaps, then, we do not need to delve into such esoteric matters as zen meditation or Yoga Nidra to understand why, in being intensely involved with a work of literature, we forget our physical bodies or the space around us. Isn't it enough simply say, "We don't pay attention to those things? We're concentrating instead on some book, play, or movie." Alas, where the brain is concerned things are rarely so easy. "Paying attention" is not a simple matter.There are two large topics in the neurological literature that bear on our paying attention to a literary work, attention and its opposite, neglect.
BE JOSEPH-R'S 1986 PAPER. We project into the imperfect information of the book, movie. Hence we literally merge with it. We incorporate.
Central to the willing suspension of disbelief is a network between the frontal cortex (which thinks and plans) and the parietal cortex (which organizes sensory information). This network biases visual processing. This network governs the secondary regions of the "what" visual network, those regions that process attributes of the basic sight information (as in Appendix B??) so as to enhance the visual process (Corbetta). Objects in the visual field compete for representation in the frontal cortex, and the competition is biased (by structures in working memory) in favor of objects relevant to behavior (Chelazzi, Duncan, Miller, et al.; Duncan). The eyes will focus and the brain will process information on what suddenly appears or changes or what the brain tells its visual processing systems to pay attention to. And in this competition, winner takes all (Behrmann and Haimson).
Typically, the experiments show, if visual information has no immediate behavioral relevance, it gets filtered out in the parietal, sensory cortex, specifically, the lateral intraparietal area. The entire visual world is only weakly represented in that area, and only the most behaviorally salient objects get strongly represented (Gottlieb, Kusunoki and Goldberg). Presumably the same holds true for our hearing and our sensorimotor perceptions. Andy Clark, working from the perspective of artificial intelligence, comes to a similar conclusion. "Perception is itself tangled up with specific possibilities of action--so tangled up, in fact, that the job of central cognition often ceases to exist. The internal representations the mind uses to guide actions may thus be best understood as action-and-context-specific control structures rather than as passive recapitulations of external reality" (Clark 51).
If our current task is to watch a play or movie or read a book, the areas for retaining visual information, the "inferior temporal convexity and lower bank of the superior temporal sulcus" (Brodmann areas 37 and 22), will fire in the areas specific to that task (Fuster and Jervey). In general, these researchers show, when we concentrate on a stimulus we reduce our perception of sensory information that does not pertain to the literary stimulus. The attenuating of visual response can take place even in the very low-level, early areas for processing information, the striate cx at the back of the head. Spatial areas on our field of view cease to fire if they do not concern the object we are paying attention to (Somers, Dale, Seiffert, et al.). This reduction can come bottom-up, that is, from relatively low-level sensory processes (e.g., some perception that suddenly changes onscreen, say), or from top-down, from high-level prefrontal directives (the thinking brain saying, This is what's important).
??MOVE THIS UP TO WHERE YOU HAVE STEIN Moreover, neurologists have shown that that "higher" areas in the dorsal and ventral pathways of visual perception, that is, the "what" and the "how" or "where" pathways (see Ch. 1,2), control the areas processing visual perception. That is, we can "see" something--our optical nerve systems can pass the information from our retinas back to the primary visual processing area (V1, Brodmann area 17)--we can "see" something but not see it, that is, not process it for edges, dimensionality, color, and so on, in "extrastriate" areas. The striate cortex at the very back of our heads is the primary area for processing information from our retinas. That visual information then goes to "extrastriate" areas further forward along the sides of our heads, above and behnd our ears. If these extrastriate areas do not process the visual information, although we have "seen" some object, we would never become conscious of that object.
This not seeing can in turn be dictated by areas in the lateral frontal cortex, the brain areas under the outer sides of our foreheads (Lumer and Rees). Together these frontal cortexes and these extrastriate areas form an integrated system in which attention controls vision. What we are not paying attention to, we see but do not see, that is, do not become conscious of seeing. With literature, our brains make us unconscious of the environment outside the movie screen, the play onstage, or the pages of the book--if we are "absorbed" in it.
Attention to a literary stimulus is special: it is more intense, shutting down competing stimuli. As we saw in ch. 2??, our brains, when we look or hear a text, project it into a three-dimensional world. We are already, then, actively processing the literary work before we ever become involved with its content. Then, we project into its language, filling in gaps. We provide whole faces, bodies, and scenes for novels that can give us only partial descriptions with words. We provide motivations and psychology for characters in movies that can give us only how they look. All this activity focuses attention more tightly on the literary work and away from our bodies and what surrounds that literary work.
Nevertheless ordinary attention tells us something. Here again, the neurologists have something to offer, the so-called "ventriloquism" effect. Deep in the brains of all mammals, not just cortex-heavy hominids like ourselves, certain cells in the midbrain (the superior colliculi) put together a coherent three-dimensional picture of the world. Multisensory neurons in these regions respond to combinations of, say, sight and sound, so as to put them together. If two stimuli originate from the same event, they multiply the response of these multisensory neurons. Suppose you are watching a vetriloquist perform. If you see the dummy's mouth move and at the same time you hear a voice, you will put the two together, even if you can detect slight movements in the human performer's mouth. Conversely, when inputs come from different sensory modalities at different times, for example, when you have a mixture of sights and sounds, as on a city street, these multisensory cells respond much less. You become less aware of the competing stimuli (Stein, Wallace and Meredith; Stein, Wallace and Stanford). Evidently, then, if you are watching events on a stage, your brain will strongly put the sights and sounds coming from the stage together. You will only weakly sense other, separated sights and sounds in the theater, the rustlings of the audience or the hum of the air conditioner or the persistent green EXIT sign. These multisensory neurons provide another way in which attention to story or drama reduces our awareness of body and environment.
Just as we do not perceive parts of the environment toward which we are not going to act or to which we ae not paying attention, so we do not perceive aspects of our bodies that we are not moving or to which we are not paying attention. "To determine position, sensation per se is not sufficient. Rather, sensation must be combined with input regarding movement or positional change . . . . It is for this reason that in the absence of movement (and in the absence of visual cues, such as when one wakes up in the middle of the night), one usually cannot tell where or in what position [one's] arms or legs may be in. However, with a slight movement we can immediately determine position" (Joseph 446, 445-55. Losing track of one's body in space. HERE OR BELOW? This seems to me very much the situation when I am concentrating on a book or a play or a movie. Here again, though, the forgetting of body does not happen only with literature. I can forget my body when I am concentrating on some intellectual problem, like fixing a bug in my computer. Then I will sit so long in one position that I ache when I move, yet I remain unaware of my body until I move.
Researchers at M.I.T. have also shown with rhesus monkeys that the thinking, planning prefrontal cortex plays a central role in what we are conscously aware of, tying consciousness to behavior--motion. Not only does the prefrontal cortex represent to consciousness only the sensory information relevant to a particular behavioral task, it also will pull only behaviorally relevant information from long-term memory (Rainer, Rao and Miller). "In large regions of the prefrontal cortex, neurons adapt their properties to carry specifically information that is relevant to current concerns." What results is a dense, distributed representation of related inputs, actions, rewards, and other information (Duncan). And that is what happens in--at least my--literary experience. When I am absorbed in, say, a movie, I am not remembering extraneous information about, for example, the day's events. That is why we regard movies and even reading as "escape." We give them our attention at the expense of our realer concerns.
"This is not my leg"
Neurologists who study the way we pay attention have, however, been preoccupied with the extremely damaging syndrome of "neglect." (Coleridge's "willing suspension" has, understandably, not bulked large on the medical agenda.) "Neglect" in its technical sense refers to the way some patients will deny that they are, for example, paralyzed or blinded on one side by a lesion. They can lose track of body parts on that side entirely. They can forget the paralyzed limb that brought them into the hospital in the first place--"My daughter thinks there's something wrong with me." They can say that their left arm or leg is not theirs--"Some intern is playing a trick on me and put this thing in my bed and would you please take it away?" A stroke victim blinded in one eye may say, "I see perfectly well with that eye--it's just that the light is so poor here." With "neglect," patients who have (usually) right hemisphere lesions can ignore the left half of visual space, failing to draw or even imagine the left half of an object or scene. Oliver Sacks' engrossing and disturbing books report many of these cases.
Neurologists have not settled on one description of the brain systems reponsible for this syndrome of neglect. Kenneth Heilman, however, who has studied the phenomenon extensively, offers a sufficiently comprehensive and well-known account for our purposes. Heilman suggests that these total unawarenesses come from failures to intend to move (Heilman, K. M., "Anosognosia").
That is a commonsensical observation. Less obviously, knowing that we don't have to act shuts down some of the brain's key activities. For example, Heilman, studying the phenomenon of neglect, suggests that some cases may arise from a failure of intent to move the affected limb (Heilman, K. M., "Anosognosia"; Heilman and Valenstein, Clinical Neuropsychology; Heilman, K. M., "Anosognosia"). In pathological neglect, if the patient with a paralyzed limb does not intend or expect the limb to move, then, when the limb in fact fails to move, the patient doesn't know it is failing to move. More technically, in normal people, the intention "feeds forward" information about the desired body position to the sensorimotor networks that would perceive that position. If the intention doesn't feed forward, the sensorimotor system fails to perceive that the body is not in the intended position. The patient becomes unaware of the paralysis, and the neurologist diagnoses neglect.
A textbook asks, "Why do we have brains at all?," and points out that plants and sponges get along very well without them. Why? Because they don't move. "We need brains to control our behaviors, and our behaviors are movements." Our brains serve one purpose entirely, movment. Finding food, talking, mating--to do any of them, we have to move (Kalat 224). True, when we read a book or watch a play or movie, we are doing things. But when we read a book or watch a play or movie, we don't move. We watch and listen and read, but to what movement does our listening, watching, or reading lead? None, so far as I can tell, save the turning of pages or putting opera glasses to our eyes.
While being absorbed in a movie to the exclusion of anything else in the theater hardly qualifies as neglect, it seems likely to me that some of the same systems in the brain could very well be involved. We immobilize ourselves to watch a movie or read a book. We do not intend to move. Hence we become unaware that we are not moving. We lose track of our bodies (Heilman, K., Matter of Mind Fig. 5-1).
The left hemisphere of our brains attends to details and analyzes events. The right hemisphere tends to consider the environment globally. In the literary situation, then, the left hemisphere is actively interpreting the reading or viewing. The right hemisphere, which would ordinarily be attending to the surrounding environment, is doing less of that. Heilman has suggested that the right hemisphere pays attention to space at some distance from the self, while the left hemisphere pays attention to space nearby (as, for example, in reading) (Miller and Cummings 306).
The brain systems for attention are complex. They involve the frontal cortex, the "advanced" part of the brain, the part involved in making sense of what one is watching or reading. Some evidence points to nuclei within the thalamus (notably the pulvinar); neurologists regard the thalamus as as the gateway in the brain to and from sensory inputs that go ultimately to the frontal lobes. Lesions of the superior colliculus (a synthesizer of vision) or the posterior parietal cortex (another synthesizer of sensory information) also disrupt the ability to pay attention. Evidently, the limbic system is involved (centers for emotion), the basal ganglia (facilitating appropriate movements and inhibiting inappropriate ones), and the evolutionarily ancient reticular formation in the brain stem (directing posture and locomotion). This last region controls, in a downward direction, motion of the limbs and, in an upward direction, attention and arousal, and it plays, perhaps, the central role in attention, with outputs to all the regions mentioned previously (Bear, Connors and Paradiso 613, 390, 630).
Again and again, neurologists connect awareness to high-level commands from the frontal lobes about behavior--moving our limbs. A different mechanism might be at play, a top-down attentional control system. That is, our conscious knowledge (presumably in our prefrontal lobes) that we are not to act controls lower-level areas processing visual (and presumably auditory) signals.
MAYBE MOVE THIS TO EARLIER Thus, one team has used event-related fMRI techniques to discover a network modulating vision. The network they point to consists of the superior frontal cortex, inferior parietal cortex, superior temporal cortex, and portions of the posterior cingulate cortex and insula (Hopfinger, Buonocore and Mangun; Heilman, K., Matter of Mind Fig. 4-4). This sytem modulated activity in the later stages of the visual processing sytem, amplifying it or attenuating it. The net result is that we "see" our whole visual field, but we are consciously aware only of the parts to which our top-down attention system directs us. We look at the movie, and although we visually process the theater and the other people around us, we cease to be aware of them, so long as we pay intense attention to the film (Corbetta). Other experiments suggest that inhibition of vision in favor of one or another context begins all the way at the first area for extensive processing of visual information, the primary visual cortex at the back of the head (Vidnyanszky, Papathomas and Julesz).
I have been describing top-down modulation of attention. But attention can be focused from bottom-up stimuli as well. Thus a sudden shift into high-contrast film (as in some of Bergman's movies) will draw your attention to the screen--as will your basic Hollywood car chase with its rapid cutting and loud noises. Conversely, or a sudden intrusion into a theater or a noise in one's living room might take your attention away from a book or play toward the extraneous stimulus (Kastner and Ungerleider). In the literary situation, I should think, an unexpected event or word in a novel could bring attention to bear more strongly on that part of the literary work. Top-down modulation of sensory processing would focus attention on things in a play or movie or story that fit continuing, large-scale aspects like plot, characterization, or theme.
For literature, we can guess at an attentional process in which the understanding and interpreting parts of the brain govern. In effect, the prefrontal cortex tells the thalamic gateway nestled in the middle of the brain, "This is important. The rest isn't." The thalamic gateway, in turn, reduces the intensity of sensory inputs about what is not related to the literature (the theater seat and the reading lamp). And most important, the thalamus tells the reticular formation, "You don't have to move." Not having to move, in turn, feeds back again through all the above systems. Not having to move, we enhance attention in the frontal cortex to the literary work. We reduce attention in the frontal cortex and the sensory networks feeding into it to our bodies and the setting they are in.
Joaquin Fuster locates the key factor in the inhibition of action in the orbital prefrontal cortex--that would be the two regions just above your eyebrows, if we were to look just at the outside of your head (Brodmann areas 10, 11, 13, and 47). In normal people, this system inhibits actions. Patients with lesions in this area suffer from an inability to exclude stimuli to action. "The orbital patient is unusually distractible, unable to inhibit interference from external stimuli that are extraneous to present context and not part of the action currently under way. . . . the patient shows hyperactivity, unable to inhibit spontaneous actions and to react to the extraneous stimuli" (Fuster, "Cognitive Functions" 193). This is exactly the opposite of our behavior when we willingly suspend disbelief. We become unaware of outside stimuli, we resist distraction, and we do not act, spontaneously or otherwise.
Our post-medieval, Western idea of literature says to us, You don't do anything in response to the poem, the story, or the drama. You can act towards it (as by turning pages or clapping your hands) but you don't respond by acting on the world outside the work.
Notice how the conscious thought, I don't act on this, plays a key role in all three of the illusions involved int he willing suspension of disbelief. To be sure, what I think of as the wiilling suspension of disbelief applies to my reaction as I sit in the audience at a movie or a play or as I sit at home reading a book. I am, in a sense, alone in my response. In the modern, capitalist West, we have a rather individualistic concept of art and literature of our responses to them. Other cultures preserve more communal forms. For us, we appreciate dance by going to a theater and sitting and watching dancers. We appreciate singing the same way. There are, of course, other traditions of literature that are far more active. For the classical Greeks, drama was part of a religious ritual. It was a communal action. In Papua New Guinea, I attended a sing-sing where many tribes came to compete. Each group had painted their bodies in a splendidly decorative way. (Our "visual arts" sit in galleries and museums. Theirs they wear on their bodies.) Each of these visually artistic groups would dance and sing in a kind of competition or association with the others, going into a trance-like state.
In these communcal forms, obviously, the injunction, Don't act on this, doesn't apply. Yet the particpants may fall into states of mind, like trances, that correspond to the Western "willing suspension of disbelief." Obviously, though, the brain is doing some thing different. Quite possibly Greek drama, for the classical Greeks, functioned in this different way, because, to them, it served in part at least as a religious ritual.
These kinds of literature, it seems to me, look as though they result from altogether different kinds of brain activity than our own. While they, too, may involve loss of the sense of self, they seem to me more involved with trance states like meditation. Nevertheless, these actions, like the sing-sing, are still actions within the work, not on the world outside the work.
In this connection, Leonard Bernstein gives a remarkable decription of his loss of self while conducting: "I always know when such a thing has happened because it takes me so long to come back. It takes four or five minutes to know what city I'm in, who the orchestra is, who are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It's a very great experience . . . . It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation. It can happen in orgasm" (Bernstein). Anyone who has seen Bernstein conduct knows that he moved. But he moved wholly and intensely in relation to the work of art, not to the world outside it.
I think we can conclude, then, that our actions toward the literary experience, like turning the pages of a book, will not disturb the willing suspension of disbelief any more than the infant's effort at sucking will break up the blissful intake of mother and milk. It may well be that actions on the work, because they are not actions on the world beyond the work, do not call up all our attention involved in ordinary motion. This focused attention and limited action means, according to Ellen Dissanayake (Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why; Dissanayake, "Becoming Homo Aestheticus"), that we will lapse into the special state of mind we need for the "making special" that forms our relation to art. It may even be, then, that communal chant or dance or Bernstein's loss of self use the same brain systems as our ordinary "willing suspension of disbelief," since the action is only toward the work itself. But there are yet other aspects of our Western "willing suspension of disbelief."
So far, we have considered two of the four psychological pieces of Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief: the ignoring of one's environment (save for the work of art itself) and the ignoring of one's body (save for its activities in perceiving the work of art). In these two of the four mental changes involved in the "willing suspension of disbelief," we find the key elements to be: 1) a decrease in activity in those areas of the brain devoted a) to registering one's position in space relative to other objects (the left parietal lobule?) and b) to constructing the brain's three-dimensional object-centered map of the world, and 2) the understanding, based on convention, that one need not act on the world outside the work of literature as a result of what one is seeing or hearing or reading.
This last turns out to be the most important for the third, rather more puzzling element in the "willing suspension of disbelief": whatever it is that lets us accept without question Arnold Schwartzenegger's turning into a pool of mercury. When we are "absorbed," we give up considerations of probability and realism.
"A Feeling of Joyful Unreality"
We accept with pleasure the illusion that the Three Bears can talk or that Sherlock Holmes can tell all about people from the mud on their shoes or that the Terminator can turn into a pool of mercury. If we are "into" a story or a play, if we are absorbed, rapt, we stop questioning likelihood and lifelikeness.
To be sure, we do not turn off our reality testing only for fictions and poems. Bernard Baars lists as similar "virtual realities": "hallucinogenic drugs, waking fanstasies, rituals and myths, dreams, folies à deux and folies à tous, urban myths and group paranoias, television serials, rumors and fables, spellbinding demagogy and hypnosis" (Baars 105). But these seem to me rather extraordinary states of mind.
In most of life, the ability to tell what is real or what is probable seems to me absolutely necessary for survival. I need to know whether that is really a pool of water or a mirage, whether that is a car heading toward me, or an image on a screen. Were I a hunter-gatherer, I would need to know whether that is really lion's roar I hear or some fellow-hunter's artistic imitation of one, or whether my dream is a dream or reality. The ability to decide these things would confer an evolutionary advantage, to say the least. Indeed, the inabiity to decide them would doom the organism. Hence this ability must be present very far down the evolutionary bush. It must be deep in our minds, part of our "reptilian brain," the brain stem and the beginnings of the systems for our emotions, particularly fear.
Yet, somewhow when we watch Terminator II turn into a pool of mercury, when we see a special-effects movie or read a fairy tale or science-fiction, we put this early, essential ability aside. That is why this aspect of our "poetic faith for the moment" puzzles me far more than the first two.
As we saw in connection with our projection of a text into our environment (Appendix C?), we begin understanding probability and realism very early in life, in the first few months. Infants have an "intuitive psychology" and distinguish between self-motivated objects (animate) and objects that move because they are acted upon (inanimate) and understood through "intuitive physics." And babies do this as early as six months Infants are aware that something is odd if a ball rolls behind a screen, and when the screen is lifted, no ball is there. GET REFS FROM THAT CH?
Yet in modern everyday life, we give up realism all the time for various kinds of literary experiences. When we are fully concentrated on something as prosaic as a television commiercial, I at least, stop testing reality for the moment and enjoy the play of the images. In any drama or story, when we are intently performing the artistic convention that we do not act on our bodies or our environmnt, we stop paying attention to our environment or our own bodies but, most interestingly, SE we stop judging probability or realism in the drama or story.
Not entirely, though. In a fascinating paper, Michael Kelly and Frank Keil, psychologists at Cornell, studied the transformations in Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Grimms' Fairy Tales. In these stories, nymphs turn into trees and straw turns into gold and scullery maids turn into princesses--there are, in short, all kinds of totally unreal, improbable transformations.
What Kelly and Keil found was that these transformations could not just be any old transformation; they stayed within certain limits . You could, for example, write a story in which milk turns red; you couldn't write a story in which an idea turns red. (At least, Ovid and the peasants who reported their stories to the brothers Grimm didn't. What a modern cyberpunk writer might do--who knows?)
Philosophers speak of "predicabiity." That is, certain predicates can go with certain subjects and others not. Milk, being a concrete thing, can be red. An idea can not (as in Chomsky's famous instance of a grammatical but meaningless sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"). One can go further, Kelly and Keil show, and set up a "predicability tree" (like a decision tree). Such a diagram arranges predicates to sort out which can go with which. A predicate such as "is nearby " is above a term if it can be predicated of that term, as "is nearby" can be predicated of a man or a rose or a refrigerator or milk or a kiss. It would be above those. But "is nearby" cannot be predicated of love or fear or an idea or a fiction. It would be below those.
With respect to the willing suspension of disbelief, I find it interesting that Arnold Schwarzenegger could turn into a pool of mercury but not into "Thou shalt not kill." That is, in a literary work, "is a liquid" could be predicated of the Terminator, but not "is one of the Ten Commandments."
Kelly and Keil sorted out the transformations in Metamorphoses and the Grimms' tales and found that conscious beings could be transformed into other conscious beings, animals, plants, inanimate objects, liquids, or even events, but in all the stories no conscious being was transformed into an abstraction. It seems possible to me that the categories and limits they propose reflect categories built into our brains. TALK ABOUT CATEGORIES IN INFERIOR LATERAL GYRUS. I think that children's being able to distnguish animate from inanimate things at a very early age (as we saw in ch. 1) tends to confirm that guess.
It seems to me that these "predicability " trees may correspond to the well-established fact in neurology that there is a certain area in the brain (the inferior temporal cortex) devoted to processing information about specific categories, such as tools, animals, or edible materials. We know this because some patients whose lesions or some experimental subjects whose numbings take particular areas of the inferior temporal cortex out of commission, lose these specific abilities, to name a tool or an animal or an edible material. Is it possible that a "predicability tree" is wired in us? Is it possible that a "predicability tree" provides a real-world basis for some of the lexical limitations on transformational generative grammar? CHK .
Within the limits of predicability, however, we abandon considerations of probability and realism when we are completely engrossed in a movie, play, or story. Why? And how?
A paper by both a neurologist and a professor of English compares narrative, at least the creation of narrative, to such fundamental cognitive operations of our brains as separating ourselves from the events we witness or monitoring the veracity of their own responses (Young and Saver pp. 76-77) Being unable to do these things seems something very like Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief. In brain-damaged people, these shuttings down stem, say the authors, from injuries to the frontal lobes of the brain, where advanced thinking takes place. I would say that what our frontal lobes are doing is sutaining the convention: "This is a work of art. We don't act on our environment in response to it."
Indeed, a paper by both a neurologist and a professor of English compares narrative, at least the creation of narrative, to such fundamental cognitive operations of our brains as separating our selves from the events we witness or monitoring the veracity of their own responses (Young, et al. pp. 76-77). Young and Saver, working from cases of "dysnarrativia," compare those people to those the neurologists term "confabulators." Confabulators make up stories to explain things that are happening to them that they don't understand, things that result from brain damage or hypnosis or some of the split-brain experiments. Clinically, confabulation stems from injuries to the frontal lobes of the brain, where our more advanced thinking takes place. Young and Saver suggest specific brain circuits for the inability to distinguish what is true from what one has imagined. They suggest a regionally distributed network that mediates the creation of narrative: episodic and autobiographical memories, generated in the amygdalo-hippocampal system; the formulation of narrative language (left peri-Sylvian region); and the organizing of persons and things into real and fictional temporal narrative frames in the frontal cortices and their subcortical connections to the "feeling" parts of the brain. Although they are discussing the ability to create narrative, the "dysnarrative" inability to tell what is real and what is fiction seems to me very like Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief.
NNH: from Heilman's Aphasiology program. (which seems to include some notes from one of his seminars.) WHAT YOU SELECT AS IMPORTANT TO YOU IN A WORK OF ART IS A FRONTAL LOBE DECISION MEDIATED THROUGH THE NUCLEUS RETICULARIS THALAMI. SOME-THING LIKE THAT. AT ANY RATE, IT IS AN ATTENTION PROBLEM. OF WHAT ARE YOU AWARE. CP. THE BALINT'S SYNDROME PEOPLE.* This belongs in another chapter, but which?
But if, in the literary situation, we stop distinguishing what is real from what is not real, that makes the fourth and final element in the willing suspension of disbelief still more puzzling than the third. If we don't tcare if what we're seeing or reading is real, why do we react emotionally to it?
"I was afraid, really afraid"
Let's imagine for a moment that I am Norm Holland, Masai warrior, walking across the Amboseli plain, armed only with my spear--and suddenly I catch sight of a lion. What goes on in my mind? I feel fear, certainly (even if I am a Masai warrior). And I begin to calculate. I consider the distance between me and the lion, the apparent mood of the beast, whether she sees me, what bushes and trees are nearby. I begin to consider alternatives. Should I try to hide behind a bush? Should I turn and run--or walk--away? Should I, in the best Masai tradition, confront the lion with my spear and fight it out? And I will try to evaluate outcomes. What are my chances if I hide? If I retreat? If I fight? In other words, I feel an emotion--fear, determination, perhaps. And I plan how I shall act.
Now suppose I am Norm Holland moviegoer in the days when we wore cardboard Polaroid glasses and watched 3-D movies with frogs and spears ocming out of the screen at us. I see on the screen a lion coming toward me . I feel fear--after all, I am looking at a dangerous beast coming straight at me. But do I consider all those alternatives? Do I plan to retreat or fight or hide? Hardly. In other words, and this is the key, I do not plan to move my limbs, and therefore I do not assess the reality of the situation, looking for trees, bushes, avenues of escape, arenas for the fight.
By convention, we know we are not supposed to rush up to rescue Desdemona when Othello starts to smother her. We know that "this is only a play," Yet, paradoxically, precisely because we know that, we can also feel the grief and anguish we might feel at a real killing. Now, given new work in neuroscience, we can at least hypothesize how our brains manage that astonishing trick.
Again and again the neurological and psychological researchers conclude that our processes of reality-testing come into play as we act or plan to act in response to a stimulus (Hobson Ch. 6; Chelazzi, et al.) . "Reality checking involves a continual assessment of the relation between behavior and the environment" (Knight and Grabowecky 1360) Absent movement or the impulse to move or a plan to move, we do not check the reality of what we perceive.
Knight and Grabowecky have worked out a rather complicated paradigm for what psychoanalysts call reality-testing. First, terms. Neurologists call reality testing the monitoring of present events in the external world and reality monitoring the monitoring of events that concern the past. Together the two constitute reality checking. To check reality in this sense, one has to simulate an unreality. One has to compare an internally generated alternative reality with a currently perceived or remembered reality. One has to understand the "true" reality as the true one compared to imagined realities in order to act appropriately on one's environment.
Why the alternatives? We humans simulate in order to compare the merits of alternative judgments and decisions, particularly in order to arrive at the best, the most appropriate physical actions. (Remember that the primary business of a brain is to move the body toward desired goals.) We generate "counterfactuals" in order to set goals and plan actions. We imagine situations, we create narratives.
Brain-damaged patients who have trouble generating appropriate actions have trouble, according to this model, in generating alternative versions of reality. They become too bound to whatever stimulus comes their way, because they are impaired in their ability to generate and evaluate counterfactual alternatives.
Certain lesions cause patients to lose this ability. They suffer from "dysexecutive syndrome," "a defect in motor preparation set." "The patient cannot formulate plans of future action that deviates from ordinary routine. His capacity to create new speech or behavior is severely restricted" (Fuster, "Cognitive Functions" 192-3).
These patients suffer from lesions in a particular region of the frontmost part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Still more particularly, they have damage in the region of the brain that would be just under your hand when you lean your forehead sideways on your hand. This is the region above and to the side from your eyebrows, the dorsolateral surface of the prefrontal cortex (Brodmann areas 8, 9, 10, 11, 44, 45, 46, 47). This is the region where one simulates internal models of actions (Knight, et al.; Knight, Grabowecky and Scabini, "Human Prefrontal Cortex" 30-31; Knight, Grabowecky and Scabini, "Human Prefrontal Cortex" 30-31).
When I am a spectator or a reader and I am absorbed, I do not simulate. I do not sit in the movie theater generating counterfactuals, alternative courses of action to what I am seeing before me. I don't sit there and say, Should I run from that lion? Should I stop Othello from killing that woman? When I read, I read--I don't try to cope with the situations the author has invented. Were I to think about what I should do, I would find I have broken my absorption.
To be sure, what I'm seeing (play, movie, or book) is real, but that word--annoyingly--has two senses in our context. Real can be 1) the opposite of unreal--like a dream--or it can be 2) the opposite of untrue--like a fiction. That is, I am holding a book or a watching a play taking place in front of me. As a physical play in front of me, it is a real event, as real as events ever are (sense #1). But it is also fictional (sense #2).
Othello isn't really (sense #2) killing Desdemona. Consciously knowing that, I deliberately don't think about doing anything about it. I have willingly shut down the planning functions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the same functions that injuries have shut down in these stimulus-bound patients unwillingly. I have shut down my ability to plan actions, and I don't simulate counterfactuals. I have turned off my true-false-detector. I have suspended disbelief.
Confabulators, another group of brain-lesioned patients, also have trouble telling reality from fantasy. These people misremember or misperceive but produce explanations and rationalizations for their errors. Here again, the neurologists find frontal lobe damage, perhaps coupled with damage to related systems, notably the basal forebrain in the limbic system (Moscovitch 137; Heilman and Valenstein, Clinical Neuropsychology 573). A team of Swiss researchers have made an intriguing suggestion regarding "spontaneous" confabulations. By that, they mean confabulations not provoked by anything, not, for example, the kind of hasty explanation any of us is likely to produce to compensate for a lapse in memory. The researchers suggest that these confabulators have a problem in processing information in the immediate present, the "now." Instead, they mix up the time sequence of events and bring into the "now" traces of events from hours, weeks, or even years past. The patients' brain lesions involved the anterior limbic system (medial orbitofrtonal cortex, basal forebrain, amygdala, and perirhinal conscious or medial hypothalamus). That is, not only had the lesions damaged the thinking part of their brains but also parts specifically associated with memory.
Interestingly, this confusion of the past with the here and now corresponds to a part of our response to literature described in 1957 by a psychoanalytic critic, Simon O. Lesser, "analogizing" (Lesser 200, 203-4, 210, 242-47). We bring to bear on what we now see or read some feeling or experience from our own past. I see Othello enraged at Desdemona, and I bring to bear my own feelings of jealousy from some painful occasion decades earlier. And my bringing my own past to bear on the here and now of the play makes me feel it all the more strongly. Lesser suggests that one can bring in simply a parallel experience or that one can rewrite the past, imagining a more satisying outcome. Either way, it is worth noting that we are simulating--creating counterfactuals--that bear on the past, not on future actions. The convention that we do not act stil rules. In response to literature, we do not plan a future. We do bring emotions from the past that reinforce the emotions we feel at the present fiction or drama.
Why Do I Feel?
Real-world emotions, however, themselves pose puzzles. We see something frightening and we feel fear. We see something frustrating, and we feel anger. Love, hate, fear, joy, anger, sadness, or disgust--the mere attempt to classify and establish "basic" emotions has frustrated psychologists. Joseph Ledoux, one of the most significant writers on emotion, lists a number of theorists who have tried. Plutchik, for example, lists eight: disgust, anger, anticipation, joy, acceptance, fear, surprise, and sadness. These we combine by cognitive processes into complicated feelings like pride, shame, or gratitude (Ledoux 113-14). At the deepeest level, some researchers suggest, there are only two basic emotions: appetitive and defensive, or, looked at in terms of action, approach and avoidance (Lang, Bradley and Cuthbert).
Further, neurologists have been debating for over a century the precise mechanism by which this happens, a stimulus' leading to a feeling. The scientists distinguish two main parts of what common speech calls, indiscriminately, emotion or feeling. The first, emotion or "affect," consists of the bodily signs of the layperson's "emotion": the quickened pulse, the shortness of breath, the tensing or relaxation of muscles. Part of emotion in this sense is our startle reflex, the little jump I made when I was "really, really afraid" because of the chain saw murderer. The second part of emotion consists of the conscious feeling, mental not physical, like the sense of pleasure or the feeling of fear or anger. I'll call the first emotion, the second feeling.
The question then is, How does a stimulus lead to body-emotion plus mental-feeling? Textbooks report a variety of theories that have developed over the last century. The James-Lange theory holds that one perceives the stimulus; it evokes a bodily response; and the bodily response feeds back--is perceived in the brain--and causes the feeling. The Cannon-Baird theory says that the emotion led to the feeling (mental) which in turn led to the bodily response. CHK The Schachter-Singer theory holds that the stimulus leads to mental arousal, and this, when perceived, leads to the feeling. Magda Arnold's theory maintians that we perceive the stimulus, appraise it unconsciously, and unconsciously start an "action tendency" which, when perceived, leads to the feeling. Robert Zajonc's theory claims that the stimulus leads to unconscious affect which then leads to a conscious feeling. And one could talk about the theories of Broca, Papez, Ramón y Cajal, Yakovlev, and so on (Ledoux 43-64; Heilman, et al., Clinical Neuropsychology 477-80). Possibly, though, if we tiptoe around the unanswered question of how a stimulus leads to a feeling, we can explain nevertheless the paradox of emotions in the willing suspension of disbelief.
This following passage comes from an undergraduate neuropsychology textbook, the chapter on emotions:
When you feel a strong emotion, you are inclined to do something, and generally to do it intensely and vigorously. If you are afraid, you want to run away; if you are angry, you want to attack. If you are extremely happy, our response is a little less predictable, but still some ort of vigorous action is likely. . . .
Let's think for a moment about an apparent exception: You're lying in your bed at home when you hear an intruder break into the house. You might lie there frozen with fear, feeling a strong emotion but doing nothing. True, you are not moving at the moment, but your heart is racing. You might continue lying there, hoping the intruder will leave without noticing you, but you are ready to run away or to attack or to do what- ever else the situation requires.
In short, it is hard to imagine an emotion without some sort of body response based on the two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for brief, intense, vigorous responses usually characterized as "fight or flight." The parasympathetic nervous system increases digestion and other processes associated with conservation of energy and preparation for later events (Kalat 338).
In other words, an emotion is a call to action (Ledoux 126). Most of the emotions that we encounter in books or movies or plays tend to evoke the sympathetic nervous system, the world of car chases and shoot 'em ups and searching out clues in a dark and deserted house. There are others, though, more romantic or amusing, that evoke a parasympathetic feeling of contentment or being rewarded or sensuous pleasure.
The limbic system (however defined) generates our emotions+feelings. The most important structure for our emotions within the limbic system is the amygdala, which produces fast value judgments about what we see. Others are the septal nucleus and the ventral striatum. All are evolutionarily earlier parts of our brains, more centrally and deeply located than the prefrontal cortex with its planning. In fact, it is from these structures (and others) that our human neocortices grew, the big lobes with which we do our big thinking. It is these later, cortical structures that analyze stimuli and rank them according to urgency, shunting information back to the thalamus and limbic systems and to other neocortical stuctures that generate actions. Very loosely speaking, we could say that physically lower and evolutionarily earlier structures generate emotions and feelings and then the evolutionarily later structures above them evaluate those emotions or feelings and decide whether and how to act on them (Joseph ch. 5). Our brain anatomy makes all too evident how reason and emotion can be separated, those faculties that poets and literary critics in the early and mid-twentieth century (following T. S. Eliot) devoutly wanted to fuse.
Thus, what is important to note for our purposes is the textbook's last example, the frightening intruder. Emotion prompts us to action, but we can separate action from emotion; we can inhibit it. We can feel the emotion, but inhibit the action it would normally prompt.
A famous experiment by Schachter and Singer showed the dependence of emotions on our cognitive information. They gave their subjects epinephrine (adrenaline), which aroused their emotions in a general way. But what emotion the subjects described depended on the circumstances. If the experimenters' stooge was acting so as to make them angry, they announced that they felt anger. If the stooge was trying to frighten them, they announced that they felt fear. But--and this is the important part of the experiment for our purposes--if they were told that they were going to feel aroused because of the epinephrine, the stooge's behavior had little effect (Schachter and Singer). What does this mean? We can see that what we feel in response to the stimulus is something we at least partially label from some "higher" level according to what we know cognitively at that time (Heilman, Bowers and Valenstein 478-80). And that is what we do when we are watching a movie or a play or reading a book. We have emotions appropriate to our cognitive knowledge of the literary work. And we also know that we are "only" reading or watching. The lion is not real, and Desdemona will curtsy for her curtain call even after Othello has smothered her.
For understanding our willing suspension of disbelief, then, we don't need to solve the problem of how a stimulus causes a feeling. However that happens, we can have a feeling that fits the stimulus we are reading or watching. But precisely because we know we are not going to act, we can enjoy our feelings as such. We don't need to generate counterfactuals or otherwise plan for action. We can inhibit that process.
Joaquin Fuster locates that inhibitory control in the prefrontal cortex (Fuster, "Cognitive Functions" 191-93). Specifically, he assigns this function to the part of your brain just above your eyebrows and extending back toward the brain stem at the base of your skull, the orbital prefrontal cortex,. (He diagrams Brodmann areas 10, 11, 13, and 47.) It may be that the right hemisphere plays more of a role in this effect than the left, for the right hemisphere tends to be the one that determines the socially appropriate behavior for a given occasion. Also, it is in the right hemispheres of our brains that we interpret emotional gestures and facial expressions (Edwards-Lee and Saul; Borod; Tucker, Luu and Pribram). Also, it may be the right ventral prefrontal cortex (roughly the same as the area Fuster pointed to above) that supplies rapid and coarse labeling of emotion (Kawasaki, Adolphs, Kaufman, et al.) (Is it possible that the dominant role of the right hemisphere in perceiving emotion is why we are more easily moved by movies and plays than novels? Because the right, visuospatial hemisphere is at work when we watch a spectacle and the left, verbal hemisphere when we read?)
Reading a book or sitting in a theater, we know we are not going to act. But the process by which stimulus leads to feeling goes on just the same. We see a lion or a chain saw murderer and we feel fear. We see a puppy or a dolphin die and we feel sad. I see the latest starlet and I feel lust. I see a gunfight and I long to have a pistol in my hand. A strong line of experiments shows that subjects shown pictures likely to evoke various emotions not only feel the emotions but demonstrate the physioogical signs of those emotions, sweats, tremors, sexual arousal, and so on (Lang, Greenwald, Bradley, et al.).
Knowing that I do not have to act on any of these stimuli, knowing that this is "only a movie" or "only a story," I can feel quite freely without having to control my emotions in order to act. This result is quite paradoxical. Our knowledge that this is only a movie leads us to feel as though it were real, indeed more real emotionally than "only a movie" would suggest. The same holds true for stage play, story, or poem, differing perhaps in degree. And, of course, none of this takes place if, for whatever reason, we are not able to carry on our processes of expectation, defense, fantasy, and transformation (Appendix ??).
Henry Goes to the Movies
In short, we come down to the essential and quite remarkable paradox in the willing suspension of disbelief:
It is precisely the knowledge that the literary situation is not real, that I do not have to act on it, that leads me to feel uncritically and intensely what I would feel if it were real.
This is, I think, what Coleridge meant by "poetic faith."
And why does it happen? Because two quite different systems in my brain are involved in these two quite different responses. "Emotion and cognition," LeDoux summarizes, "are best thought of as separate but interacting mental functions mediated by separate but ineracting brain systems" (Ledoux 69). I feel in the subcortical systems of my older, mammalian brain. Confronted with a real lion, my amygdala would energize and pass its excited state on to my thalamus and then my frontal lobes. I would feel the mental sensation and exhibit the bodily signs of fear. But, when I look around for a hiding place, a line of retreat, or an advantageous place to fight that lion, I am working with my prefrontal cortex. I am using the more advanced, primate parts of my brain, those that are evolutionarily younger. The plan to act ties me to reality and reality-testing in my mind, but that takes place in a different system from my emotional circuits. When the lion jumps out at me in the movies, I feel with those emotional circuits, I may jump a little in my seat, I may sweat a little extra when the lion moves toward me, but my prefrontal cortex is saying, It's all right, it's only a movie, and I don't run for the exit.
My grandson Henry illustrated the paradox nicely when he was five years old. My wife and I took Henry to the movie, Monsters, Inc. (2001). From time to time, when one of the good characters was going to be menaced, Henry would cover his eyes or crawl into my lap, saying, "I don't want to watch this." On the one hand he showed that he knew that he had a choice to watch or not. He knew, therefore, that he was watching a movie. The suspension of disbelief is not a belief. On the other hand, he also knew that he would feel real fear. People often say that children have bad reactions to movies to tv because "they don't realize it's only a movie," or because "they can't distinguish movies and tv from reality." I think Henry showed that he could perfectly well know that Monsters, Inc. was a movie--he knew he was watching a movie. But he knew equally well and at the same time (!) that he would feel emotions that were very real indeed, and these were emotions he couldn't or didn't want to handle.
The same paradox applies to a book. My mother used to tell the story of how she was sitting in the living room reading a scary novel (think H. P. Lovecraft). In the next room, where I was sleeping, a balloon I had gotten that day suddenly popped. "I nearly had a heart attack," she would laughingly say. From a neuropsychological point of view, she consciously knew she was sitting in our living room reading a book, but the emotion of fear came completely involuntarily. It came from some earlier, invincible part of her brain, more emotional and less cognitive than the parts with which she knew she was reading a mystery.
Why? Why do we humans fool ourselves this way? Chapter 3? suggested a possible reason in the psychodynamics of our willing suspension of disbelief. Why literature? We all do it. Every culture has its legends, poems and dramas. Humans everywhere and at every period in history have told stories and, surely, experienced and enjoyed this willing suspension of disbelief. But why? To follow out the Freud-Chomsky argument, if all humans everywhere and always do this, it must be innate. It must be organically in our brains somehow, somewhere. It must therefore have evolved as we evolved into homo sapiens sapiens. And it must therefore confer some advantage in either survival or reproduction. But what advantage? That is a large question indeed, one that deserves another chapter, a chapter to itself, a chapter I shall call, "Why Literature?"
At the moment, we can simply note that psychodynamics described a psychological process for our willing suspension of disbelief. Neuroscience describes a brain process for the phenomenon. I believe the two explanations combine, each to strengthen the other, and now I want to turn to that combination.
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