Peak aesthetic experiences part 1: definitions

March 29, 2022  |  1 min read  |  Story Writing Book

“From the era of Latin rhetoric and poetics to the present day, emotionally moving an audience has been considered one of the major goals of rhetoric and art.”
— Winfried Menninghaus Menninghaus, Winfried, et al. “Towards a Psychological Construct of Being Moved.” PLOS ONE, 4 June 2015.


I’m doing research for a book I hope to write. The book is about story, with a focus on story structure and the underlying functions that make it work. As part of my research, I’m interested in the neuroscience behind stories.

As part of my research process, I’m posting summaries of my notes as I go. This forces me to “learn in public,” abandoning my perfectionist tendencies and, hopefully, benefitting you, dear reader.


One of the neuroscience topics I’m researching is what I’m calling “peak aesthetic experiences.” A In this post, I’ll try to give you a working definition for what these are.

But first, how did I get here? I kind of discovered the topic of peak aesthetic experiences by accident. I was looking for research on the build and release of tension, something that I hypothesize is at the core of our experience as a story audience. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found anything that speaks specifically to that topic. But I have found a bunch of research on adjacent topics, which, joined together, start to paint a picture.

Peak aesthetic experiences are one of those.


You can think of peak aesthetic experiences as the kind of emotional reaction that a person has to an especially meaningful work of art, music, or story.

The papers I read discussed three reactions that are associated with peak aesthetic experiences: chills, tears, and a feeling of “being moved.”

Although they are distinct, these phenomena overlap and interact in interesting ways. For example, both tears and chills have been reported to cooccur with states of being moved. Menninghaus, Winfried, et al. “Towards a Psychological Construct of Being Moved.” PLOS ONE, 4 June 2015. Wassiliwizky, Eugen et al. “Tears Falling on Goosebumps: Co-occurrence of Emotional Lacrimation and Emotional Piloerection Indicates a Psychophysiological Climax in Emotional Arousal.” Frontiers in Psychology, 7 February 2017.

Chills and tears are physiologically distinct. Using music as a prompt, Mori and Iwanaga found that chills are associated with states of arousal, while tears are associated with calm. Both produced pleasure and deep breathing. Mori, Kazuma and Makoto Iwanaga. “Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears.” Scientific Reports, 7 April 2017.

Chills and tears can overlap, Mori, Kazuma and Makoto Iwanaga. “Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears.” Scientific Reports, 7 April 2017. and Wassiliwizky et al. found that the intensity of response is strongest when they do. “The overlap of tears and goosebumps signifies a maximal climax within peak moments.” Wassiliwizky, Eugen et al. “Tears Falling on Goosebumps: Co-occurrence of Emotional Lacrimation and Emotional Piloerection Indicates a Psychophysiological Climax in Emotional Arousal.” Frontiers in Psychology, 7 February 2017. Thus, I presume that all three may happen at the same moment. Engaging with a particularly salient stimulus, a person may have chills, tears, and a sense of being moved. This is peak aesthetic experience.


I’ll go into all of this more later, but for now, here’s a rapid-fire summary of facts about peak aesthetic experiences:


Taking all this together, we can finally arrive arrive at the following definition:

A peak aesthetic experience is one in which a person is exposed to a particularly meaningful work of art, music, nature, or story and experiences tears, chills, a sense of being moved, or some combination of these. Subjectively, a person may experience pleasure, intensity, or insight, and people generally look back on peak aesthetic experiences as having been positive.

In future posts, I’ll expand on what the research says about how people experience these moments and what goes into creating them.


Note

Digital gardening epistemic status:

  • Low confidence
  • Low effort