We’ve all read at least one book that makes us marvel at how writing can be so influential. I’ve often wondered how we can be so emotionally invested in nothing but words printed on crisp paper and then came across an interesting explanation of why we get lost in a book. At Free University of Berlin, a study of brain reactions to certain passages in the Harry Potter books was conducted to see if certain types of excerpts facilitated the immersive experience more than others . Out of this study, the fiction feeling hypothesis was born.
According to the fiction feeling hypothesis, narratives with emotional contents invite readers more to be empathic with the protagonists and thus engage the affective empathy network of the brain, the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex, than do stories with neutral contents.
Emotionally charged passages in books makes us readers empathetic with the characters and this brain engagement leads to the feeling of getting lost in a book. So if the passage is fear-inducing, we feel dread. It’s all about which neural pathways are activated while reading. This paints an interesting image in my mind, just thinking of brain scans lighting up in certain regions when reading different passages of books like a colourful kaleidoscope. It’s fascinating.
But then what about getting lost in the writing part of it?
I’d read something last semester that took a look at this. Freud attempts to answer this question in his essay, ‘Creative Writing and Day-dreaming”. He sought to understand where creative writers draw from while writing and how they are able to invoke in readers emotions they never thought they could have. In his quest for an answer, he likens the creative writing process to day-dreaming and child’s play. A child takes elements from the real world and builds his or her own, rearranging until he or she’s pleased and does so with a great deal of seriousness and emotional expenditure, all the while able to distinguish it from reality. Similarly, as we grow older, this pleasure derived from child’s play is found in its more mature substitute: day dreaming which can be immersive in its own right.
According to Freud, the hero of the story is a written manifestation of our ego or basically that the writer is in fact the hero, making most works autobiographical. Although I’m sceptical that this can be applied to every author, The Bell Jar is certainly a good example of this, with Syvia Plath and her protagonist Esther mirroring one another. Her semi-autobiographical book could have been a form of confessional, therapeutic writing, narrating her own descent into depression through a fictional counterpart. Not only does Freud say that the writer identifies with the hero, but readers do as well. I suppose that’s why reading this book can be quite intense.
So literature can be therapeutic for both writers and readers. It’s a space where we can fulfill wishes, live through danger vicariously and live out our potential problems. It’s a fantastic channel to release pent-up tension without negative repercussions and that’s what makes it so appealing to everyone. Expressive writing is an effective therapy technique for this very reason.
Another point Freud goes on to make is that in the case of the modern writer, the hero/ego is often fragmented into many parts, split off into several characters. It’s as if writers can pocket parts of themselves, positive and negative traits, in a wide range of characters. I think we can see this in the case of Game of Thrones (I’ve always thought GoT is Freudian what with all the emphasis on sex and violence in the series). George R.R Martin himself said that he identifies with all his characters, even the nasty ones we can’t fathom loving or even liking.
“When I get inside their skin and look out through their eyes, I have to feel a certain – if not sympathy, certainly empathy for them. I have to try to perceive the world as they do, and that creates a certain amount of affection. That being said, my favourite character is definitely Tyrion. He’s the one who I most enjoy writing. But I identify with all of them.” – George R. R Martin
While Freud may be far-fetched in some of his theories, I think these points have a certain truth to them. The essay is also worth a read, if you’re a little curious of what the father of psychology thought about creative writing.