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Why Do Books Make Us Feel Emotions?

Yashvi Peeti


Yashvi Peeti is an aspiring writer and an aspiring penguin. She has worked as an editorial intern with Penguin Random House India and HarperCollins Publishers India. She is always up for fangirling over poetry, taking a walk in a park, and painting tiny canvases. You can find her on Instagram @intangible.perception

I, for one, do not need to be convinced that books make us feel emotions. I’ve felt the entire spectrum of them in my years of being a reader. I’m going to continue to feel familiar and unfamiliar emotions as I engage with writing that navigates the fragility of the human experience. I’m fascinated by the how and the why. How are words printed on paper or displayed on screens making the metaphorical tides in my heart rise and fall? What part of an author’s toolkit lets them do this? Why do some books make us feel more than others? Let’s delve in.

A study published in Frontiers 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 have beliefs that are different from one’s own. When we read, we essentially do this very thing. We understand that the characters we’re reading about are fictional. We can assess their mental state in the context of its story and know that it is different from our own.

We can, also, simultaneously engage with the story’s emotional arcs as they draw out our feelings. These feelings, especially when it comes to stories with negative emotional valence, appear because of two primary reasons: moral reasoning and empathy. We empathise with the characters and try to figure out if the consequences of their actions are morally justified or not. This is an inherently emotionally charged process. Our amygdala is particularly engaged when dealing with negative emotions.

It’s also interesting to note that the anterior superior temporal cortex has two very different cognitive functions: sentence processing and social-emotional processing.  As we break down sentence structure to understand its meaning, our socio-emotional centres are also being charged. This provides further evidence into how reading makes us feel all the feels.

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

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

In his book Natyashastra, Bharata Muni implies that the blending of vibhava, anubhava, and vyabhichari leads to sthyibhava. This means that the blending of fleeting emotions, stimuli, and response draws out dominant emotions from the reader. Indian writers, specially poets, have used this knowledge to write in a way that helps the reader experience the complete range of human emotions.

As Keith Oatley writes in his article, we’re supposed to experience these rasas without the overwhelming context of our lived experience. We should, ideally, be able to read these works as impartial spectators. And even though we always tend to carry our own biases to the table, we can still gain a lot from being engrossed 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, moral failings, and occasional rise to whatever we consider heroism. In fiction, we can identify our own selves and be reassured. We can also be introduced to ideas, perspectives, and experiences different from our own. And we can give differing opinions a fighting chance in the context of the story they’re told in.

Our reading brain looks for cues to bring out our feelings. Writers use techniques honed with practice to draw them out even more. 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 secondhand emotions as outlined in Danika Ellis’s essay. But while we feel these emotions, we also inch towards understanding. We get closer to a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. A study was conducted at the University of Toronto to establish a link between reading and empathy by professors of University of Toronto. They found that frequent readers of fiction scored higher on certain measures of empathy.

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