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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Fri Jul 05, 2013 2:18 am    Post subject: Emotional responses to artistic works  Reply with quote

Yesterday I was at the movie Still Mine (Canadian one about a man in his late 80s building a suitable house for him and his wife with some dementia, and coming against bureaucratic restrictions - brilliant acting).  At one stage I was wiping away tears and thought about this.  I didn't think I was thinking particularly sad thoughts, though the film was sad in parts, but I was still crying.  And I wondered a little what brings those emotional responses, sometimes against our will.  And why some don't.  Music doesn't move me the way it does some people, except for the odd sentimental song.  I can be buoyed by songs in a foot-tapping way, and of course television and movies use creepy music when a body is about to be discovered and I respond to that in the way they wish.  But even then I don't really know why.

A review of The Sopranos in the NZ Listener ended:  "It [the bell] also tolled for us, as we grappled with our queasy sympathy for a charming, cold-eyed monster. Being a fan of The Sopranos, a commentator once said, amounts to Stockholm syndrome. [I don't believe in the concept of the Stockholm syndrome, which seems to me a natural response to getting to know someone more deeply. Not to feel this would be the syndrome in my opinion.]   But then, great art makes you feel what you never imagined you could."

Do you think you need to understand great art before this can happen, perhaps.  I don't really know how to appreciate, say, opera.  And while I am happy to accept the opinions and judgement of people who know and while I love looking at artworks, I don't really know myself how to judge them, apart from by their appeal to my visual senses.  The feelings I get from art are rather hard to pinpoint - they do include shock sometimes, often pleasure especially because I love colour, often bewilderment (but that is through lack of understanding, I think), puzzlement at what a picture means or if it has meaning, the emotions gained from humour, sadness. But I am not sure that any of it makes me feel, for example, exalted or taken out of myself.

Reading involves words, which I understand and respond to more.  But even then I have noticed some of us say they are terrified by works which don't scare others at all, or enjoy the sentimentality of works when others hate it, or find some phrases really moving when others just read over them.  One of our book club members can't recall Corman McCarthy's The Road without horror and distress, even years later, since she took so to heart the scene with the children's bodies.  I skim those sort of things that are too hard to absorb.  I am reading a book now which had some scenes of people lost in an underground maze and I stopped reading that too thoroughly after a little while, as I hate imagining being stuck without means of egress.  That is more fear than any other emotion though.  

I get most emotionally involved when some form of (often quite trivial) unfairness is involved, especially with children or teenagers. (People accused of things wrongly, for example, or being misunderstood.) I have to assume this goes back to my own feelings in such situations.  But why don't much worse situations of abuse or cruelty move me more in literature? They would if someone was telling me about their own experiences.  

How do you respond emotionally to literature and art and music?  Even architecture or engineering?  And what do you think is involved in this response?


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TheRejectAmidHair



Joined: 19 Nov 2008
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 05, 2013 7:00 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Caro, these are ll interesting and important questions: thank you for bringing these up.

We tend to associate "emotional involvement" chiefly with the emotion of pathos - did it move us? Did it make us cry? - but there are all sorts of other emotions also. Laughter is as much an indicator of emotions as tears, and yet people don't speak of being "emotionally involved" with the stories of Wodehouse, say. Curiosity too is an emotion, so the curiosity of wondering "what happens next?" is an emotional involvement. But once again, we tend not to think of it in such terms. We reserve the expression "emotional involvement" almost exclusively for emotions of sadness and grief, and this in itself is interesting: why do we appear to ring-fence, as it were, these particular emotions?

Lts to think about, but I'm off to catch a commuter train now. Catch up with you later.



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Green Jay



Joined: 13 Jan 2009
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 11:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think of curiousity as being intellectual rather than emotional. I can be caught up by the what happens? next of a crime novel, - or who did it? and why? - but not be emotionally engaged at all.  

I do have some quibbles over why we read so much about horrid things... not very admirable, they are a sort of comfort read, pushing the actions into the realms in unreality (for us, at least).


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 11:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

As with so many things, it's a question of definition, and perhaps te boundary between "emotional" and "intellectual" is not as fixed as we may sometimes think. I counted "curiosity" as an emotion, because curiosity is best defined as "desire to know" - and desire is surely an emotion.

I had meant to return to this topic, but it had sadly slipped my mind. I find this topic particularly interesting, as the works of art I value most are those that make an impact on my emotions.



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MikeAlx



Joined: 17 Nov 2008
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Location: Seaford, East Sussex

PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 3:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The emotion/intellect boundary is an interesting one. The most basic emotions are found widely in animals (historically contentious, but with MRI imaging and careful behavioural analysis there are now few remaining doubters). Intellect (abstract reasoning) is not known to exist in animals.

The category of emotions as understood by science encompasses some very basic motivators, such as hunger, pain, fear, anger - and, as Himadri says, curiosity. Interestingly, there is experimental evidence that curiosity is the default state for mammals, once their basic needs and security have been met. Mammals just seem to enjoy exploring for its own sake. However, more sophisticated emotions - jealousy, guilt, contrition, love etc. - are only found in higher social mammals. I think it's reasonable to argue that, whilst primates can experience surprise, only humans have a sense of humour; so there seem to be emotions that are uniquely human too.

The evolution of the mammal brain included both a huge expansion of the limbic system (mainly emotional and memory-related) and the addition of the neo-mammalian cortex (higher executive function). The neo-cortex interacts with the limbic system, allowing us to modify instinctive behaviour – it’s what allows us to devise and execute logical plans to achieve some goal, inhibiting impulsive behaviour and enabling such things as deferred gratification.

The lines between intellectual and emotional thinking are blurred. As countless psychology experiments have demonstrated, we make far more decisions than we care to admit based on emotions rather than reason, and will often rationalise them after the event. It is thought this evolved because for most of our history it’s been safer to make a fast, emotional decision on limited information rather than to fact-find and reason our way to a reliable answer (by which time our predators would have already been chewing on our legs!).

Back to the topic, literature (and its ancestor, oral storytelling) has historically aimed to engage both the emotions and the intellect. It seems reasonable to argue that it evolved to enable the efficient transmission of experiential wisdom, bypassing the time and risk involved in everyone learning everything first hand. But learning is not a purely intellectual process; it is intimately entwined with emotions – and, in particular, the reward system. Hormones, which are controlled largely by emotional responses, are a key component in forming memories and, by extension, learning. This is one reason why most of us find it easier to remember an exciting (or funny, or terrifying) story, as opposed to a list of dry facts.

The key phenomenon that makes reading (or hearing) a story an emotional experience is empathy – that is, our natural tendency to imagine ourselves in the position of the characters in the story, and experience, in somewhat muted form, how they would feel given their situation. Though partly subconscious and emotional, this is also partly an intellectual process, because we have to know what they know and realise the implications of their situation; indeed, in the case of dramatic irony we may even know more than they do! As well as sharing their emotions, we may find ourselves planning on their behalf – “what would I do?”

Green Jay raises the interesting question of the whodunit – which many people seem to read with little real empathy, but rather approach as a purely intellectual puzzle to be solved. I think Himadri is right that the emotion at play is the curiosity to know – and also the competitive need to prove oneself as an armchair detective. These are the emotional motivators behind turning the pages. But not all crime fiction works like this; in some crime fiction the interest is far more in character or social insight than in puzzle-solving (and in fact I tend to prefer that type of crime fiction).

In lieu of a proper conclusion to this long and rambling post, I will try and come back to Caro’s initial question: “How do you respond emotionally to literature and art and music?” I think I respond differently to each.

Literature for me is primarily about narrative (admittedly, I don’t read much poetry), which is to stay stories about people. My primary emotional response is to the characters and their situations via empathy and sympathy; then there is the secondary emotional response to how the implied thematic arguments might challenge or reinforce my view of the world – which may also spill into an intellectual response.

With visual art I tend to be far more emotional and less intellectual. On the whole, I don’t really care about narrative or symbolism in visual art. I tend to be very much a sensualist – I like colour, composition, mood and texture. I broadly agree with Susan Sontag, who argued in “Against Interpretation” that interpreting a painting tends to displace the actual object itself, replacing a rich physical artefact with a sort of shorthand note – i.e. we end up seeing the description rather than the thing itself. As a sensualist, I am just as likely to a strong emotional response to something abstract and intense like a Rothko or Howard Hodgkin as to a depiction of a Biblical scene, for example.

With instrumental music I’m not convinced you can have an intellectual response, other than in actually analysing the form (which you are only likely to do if you’ve had an academic musical training and know about things like Sonata Form etc.). Instrumental music is the most inherently abstract of the arts – and personally I don’t like it when it does try to depict other things (e.g. “programme music”). Why music stimulates any emotions at all is an interesting question, but it's beyond question that it is a powerful stimulant for most people.



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Apple



Joined: 24 Nov 2008
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 16, 2013 5:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I react profoundly in an emotional way to what I read, and thats how I measure how much I have enjoyed a book or not by the reaction I have had to it.

I get involved with the characters and if I can't empathise with them or have some sort of emotional reaction to what happens to them I don't really feel I have enjoyed the book.  The term getting lost in a book refers to me completely books I have loved the most are ones where I have been transported into those pages and been there every step of the way.  Some make me angry and I emote feelings of pure hatred sometimes towards some characters, others and their circumstances reduce me to tears, others have made me think deeply about the subject which is being written about - for example Germinal I was there with those miners and their plight, and all the social issues and questions which surfaced in my mind from it.  One of the biggest and deepest reactions I had was with Wuthering Heights and I am not going to rehash everything I felt when reading this book as I have said it all before.

Even characters which I have despised and books which I haven't enjoyed, Nana springs to mind here, have produced a strong emotional reaction. I didn't like her and her shallowness and the way she used men produced strong emotions in me and that is why even though I didn't like that book, I respected the writing enough because it was able  to  provoke such a strong reaction in me.  

Laughter is another emotion but rare for me when reading there are some books I have read which have made me smile and some which I have had a quiet chuckle to but I have to say there are very few to which I have had laugh out loud moments, that could be down to my choice of reading material, as I don't generally go for comedies.

Whether or not emotion and intellect are linked I cannot answer, I react emotionally and I am definitely not an intellectual so I would say not.



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Green Jay



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PostPosted: Wed Jul 17, 2013 2:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think Apple has decribed my own responses to books I've enjoyed, or valued, or got involved in, pretty accurately. But with books where I fail to engage, usually because they're what I term not well-written - I know this is a whole other topic we've talked about before -  I don't feel these sorts of reactions. I need convincing characters; they don't have to be likeable but to get involved I need not to be picking fault with how consistently or convincingly they behave and feel and think; and convincing plot.

I take the points about basic emotions and higher ones and empathy, but if we did not feel curiosity no one would ever open a book at all, so I can't see that as an emotional engagement in my terms. Many readers who claim to "just want a page-turner" e.g. Dan Brown books, don't seem much worried about empathising. In fact, they almost want to "switch off" and relax. Curiosity certainly seems to drive animals (my cat!!) but does not have to involve empathy. (My cat never reads a book but often sits on an open one, and when a kitten used to chew the edges of any book I tried to read to get my attention. Basically anti-book, I think.  Wink )

I think experiencing empathy with, and some sort of understanding of, people and situations far removed from one's own is one of the most valuable things about literature. Some readers don't care for fiction - it's all made up so why bother?! They only read factual books. I wonder if these are people who are not so good at empathising - and therefore not so interested in it or see why it is desirable and useful? And if they are not good at empathising, then dipping into someone else's world will naturally not be so interesting as it is to someone like me. I will read some non-fiction, but then have to go back to fiction, where it is much more easy and enjoyable for me to "get lost in a book", as Apple says.  I love going into other people's worlds and factual books, however dramatic and personal the material,  don't tend to transport me in the same way.


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Apple



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PostPosted: Wed Jul 17, 2013 10:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I used to prefer factual books and at one time they outnumbered the fiction I read by a considerable amount, I wouldn't say I lacked empathy for other people, It wasn't because it was just made up, I just preferred reading about factual subjects which interested me.

I also liked easy reads, the classic page turner where I didn't have to think too deeply and just wander through the books.  Now though I like books I can get my teeth into and get something from and books which make me have some kind of reaction to them whether it be positive or negative.  

A page turner still has a place though and is not a separate type of book and has an important part to play because if you are not particularly bothered about what is going to happen next then there is no point in reading it surely? I think if you get a book which engages you and makes you have a emotional reaction to it, its natural that in some respect it is also a page turner because you have become invested in the characters and their story and you want to find out what happens next.  Or am I just over simplifying?

Going back to factual books  Green Jay wrote:
Quote:
I love going into other people's worlds and factual books, however dramatic and personal the material,  don't tend to transport me in the same way.
I would agree with that to a point, because with fiction you don't know what twist is going to happen next, whereas factual stories, no matter how dramatic their story gets you know it all turns out reasonably ok as they have written their account of the story which you are reading, plus if you have some knowledge of the subject they are talking about you can think well this this and this could be done here or well I know how that turned out and she/he got over it so there isn't that deep feeling of almost suspense at what is happening - do you get what I mean? For example I read the true story of some WW2 prisoners of war, now how harrowing their stories were you knew they survived as they were telling their story and you knew that in the end we won and they were liberated so although i was interested in reading their stories and enjoyed it I wasn't so deeply involved in the story because I knew the eventual outcome was positive.



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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Sat Jul 20, 2013 8:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Caro, I had meant to reply to your original post, but good intentions were waylaid by other matters...

I still find it fascinating that when we speak of "emotional response", we almost invariably think in terms of the emotions of sadness, or grief, of fear & terror, but rarely, if ever, of mirth. We don't speak of responding emotionally to a book because it made us laugh. I wonder why this is. Is it a sort of tacit acknowledgement that grief for us is a greater emotion than mirth? I don't know that i'd acceptthat.

Another emotion response that is very difficult to put one's finger on is the aesthetic response. Most people acknowledge, for instance, that the Taj Mahal is beautiful. But what emotions do we access when we respond to the beauty of the Taj Mahal? It' not grief, it's not sadness, it's not mirth or joy, it's not terror ... What exactly is it?

I feel the same way about many works of literature: there is some emotion that I cannot specify that is touched by the perfect, flawless shape of a structure; or by the way the most perfectly chosen words fall in place in so perfect a manner in some pieces of poetry. It is an aesthetic response, and, as such, an emotional response, but one that I have always struggled to express. I was helping our daughter with some of the passages of Middlemarch she was finding difficult, and I was struck by teh sheer beauty of construction of some of these sentences. Even before I go on to what these sentences express, there is an emotional response.

You ask whether we need an intellectual appreciation before we can arrive at an emotional one. In some cases, yes. In literature especially, I think, Music can bypass the intellect with its abstract sounds (which is not to say there isn't an intellectual dimension there, but rather that I do not need to be able to follow all the intricacies of counterpoint of a Bach fugue to be affected by it); and visual arts too can bypass the intellect: one may be moved by the colours and textures and by the composition without necessarily having an intellectual grasp of them. But literature is made up of words, and it has to be filtered through the intellect before we can understand it.  In some instances, the intellectual effort required before the emotions are touched is considerable.

This happens also in areas one wouldn't normally associate with emotions. I have known mathematicians who have found genuinely deep aesthetic satisfaction in a mathematical proof. I remember Jim al-Khalili speaking of Dirac's formula, and saying that to physicists, this is the equivalent of Shakespeare's King Lear: a profound statement about the universe, and one that is beautiful. The apprehension of beauty is a mysterious faculty we posses that seems to defy explanation or analysis, but yes, sometimes one does need to pass through an intellectual exercise before one can access it. But then, there are other cases - such as the Taj Mahal, where one does not have to understand anything of the composition or of the proportions: the beauty of it bypasses the intellect completely.



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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Sat Jul 20, 2013 8:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

MikeAlx wrote:
With instrumental music I’m not convinced you can have an intellectual response, other than in actually analysing the form (which you are only likely to do if you’ve had an academic musical training and know about things like Sonata Form etc.).


This is an interesting one. The dodecaphonic music of the Second Viennese School, for instance, still raises accusations of being "too intellectual". And the charge is frequently made that music that needs to be filtered through the intellect to such an extent cannot have the spontaneous emotional impact that music ideally should. And what is more, people who claim to find emotional content in this music are just liars. And so on. It usually doesn't take too long for the insults to start flying.

In the first place, intellectual grasp can aid rather than hinder emotional response: this is certainly true in other art forms, and there is no reason why it shouldn't be true for music also. And in the second place, unless we are speaking merely of the visceral impact of a loud beat, the seemingly spontaneous response to a lot of music is only possible because we have trained our brains to recognise certain musical patterns. Once our brains are familiar with certain patterns, we enjoy, seemingly "spontaneously",  the music that displays those patterns. With certain types of music, the patterns are fairly simple, and not too hard to assimilate; but there are other types of music where the patterns are complex - whether it's Schoenberg's dodecaphonic piano pieces or classical Indian ragas. But once we have familiarised our brains to these patterns (surely an intellectual exercise), then it is entirely possible, I'd have thought, to have a spontaneous reaction - indeed, an emotional reaction -  to intellectually complex music.




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