Peak aesthetic experiences part 4: expectation and the knowledge instinct

April 15, 2022  |  12 min read  |  Story Writing Book

I’m doing research for a book about story. I’m posting summaries of my notes as I go. This forces me to “learn in public.” In this post, I continue exploring the research on peak aesthetic experiences by introducing the topic of expectation, the third factor that creates peak aesthetic experience.

In the future, I’ll talk about how expectation contributes to the moment of payoff, which we experience as peak aesthetic experience itself. But, before we can talk about how expectation contributes to peak aesthetic experience, we need to understand what expectation is and how it works. This post explores that question.


When I was in university, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights in Venice at the end of a study abroad. I've always felt I had a pretty good directional sense, but that city put me to the test. Venice's network of narrow streets and alleyways is broken up by the city's many canals. It's easy to find yourself at a dead end, where you're able to see your destination but not able to get there without backtracking.

On one notable instance, I remember heading back to our lodgings with a couple of friends. We were coming from the direction of Piazza San Marco, which is roughly in the center of the city. Our lodgings were on the other side of the Grand Canal, just north of the Campo Santa Margherita.

Unless you’re ready to swim, there are only a few ways to get across the Grand Canal. We students were saving money, so we didn’t want to take a water taxi. That left us on foot. We’d need to find a bridge.

There were two options: the Ponte dell’Academia to the South or the Ponte di Rialto to the North. I’d been walking around the city for most of a day at this point and had already visited both bridges, so I felt I had a pretty good idea of the general geography.

We talked and decided to cross the Rialto. I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, but I knew that the Grand Canal to the West, and that the Rialto was north of us. So, it made sense to head out through the winding streets in a roughly northwesterly direction.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that the Grand Canal makes a large cut-back, almost like a backward letter “S” as it snakes through the city. This meant that there was more city to the West of us than I expected, and the Rialto was more north of us, rather than west.

We walked west for about ten minutes or fifteen minutes — we were tired and going slow — before I realized I was lost. We stopped and consulted the map, and it was at that point that I realized my mistake.

In an ordinary city, this would have been easily recoverable, but in Venice, with the Grand Canal blocking our way, we were walking out into a large bend of the canal that had no bridge to cross it. We ended up having to backtrack almost the whole way in order to get to where we needed to be.

Mental models

Based on my experience walking around the city, and the times I’d consulted a map, I had an idea in my head about the way that the city was laid out, a mental map. It was a pretty decent mental map, but there were places where the Venice that existed in my mind and the one that existed in reality were different in important ways. This was one of them.

In the literature, they’d call the map of Venice I had in my mind my mental model of the city. We humans create these mental models all the time. We model everything, from everyday objects, like chairs and tables, to complex and abstract notions like relationships, cultures, and values.

Our mental models enable us to think about the world even when we’re not directly in contact with it, which is a tremendous advantage. We can imagine the feel of the wood grain on a table’s surface or make predictions about how a particular colleague will react to a decision made at work. We can see a falling object and anticipate where it will land or gauge how much effort it will take to lift a stack of books. Without these mental models, we’d be stuck, unable to know or plan beyond what we’re in immediate contact with in the world.

But our mental models can be incomplete or, as in my case, incorrect.

Our brains know this, of course. We actually have a fairly sophisticated system for detecting differences between the world we encounter and our mental models. This allows us to update our mental models to be more accurate.

Our brains do this by constantly making predictions and then evaluating the outcomes, sort of like a group of scientists in our heads, constantly running experiments. If the predictions and the outcomes match, we’re satisfied. There’s no need to update our mental models. Everything happened exactly as we expected.

However, if our predictions and the outcomes don’t match, that’s when things get interesting. Our brains compare the differences and make updates to fill gaps in our mental models, making them more accurate. Like scientists getting an unexpected experimental result, we learn something.

After my failure in Venice, I certainly learned a more accurate layout for the bridges over the Grand Canal. My mental model of the city improved.

A thirst for knowledge

Our process of seeking to update our mental models can be thought of as a drive.

Schoeller and Perlovsky call it the “knowledge instinct,” a “drive to modify existing representations to match patterns in sensory signals.” Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016.

When we detect a learning opportunity, it activates our knowledge instinct. Possible gaps between our mental models of the world and phenomena we encounter raise questions in our minds, and our brains seek answers.

Schoeller and Perlovsky refer to a theory put forth by Grossberg and Levine in 1987. According to the theory, the way we subjectively experience the knowledge instinct can be akin to homeostatic senses like thirst or hunger. Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016.

When it comes to physical homeostasis, for example, our bodies need to keep water and electrolytes properly balanced in order to be healthy. We have a “safe range” of water in our systems, and our bodies are programmed to keep us within that range. When our balance of water gets too low, our bodies sense the need and trigger a response, which we experience as thirst. Subjectively-experienced signals like thirst and satiation then drive behavior.

Schoeller’s and Perlovsky’s theory suggests that our minds have a similar kind of “homeostatic” response to knowledge acquisition. Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016. In a sense, the phrase, “thirst for knowledge” may be quite accurate.

Reward

Findings suggest a relationship between the knowledge instinct, peak aesthetic experience, and our brains’ reward systems. Two representative examples are insight and music. Let’s take them one at a time.

Reward and insight

Schoeller and Perlovsky cite a 2012 paper by Levine, which suggests that knowledge acquisition leverages a “network involving association cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, striatum, opioids, and dopamine.” Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016. (In other words, structures of the brain associated with reward.)

Pelowski proposes that knowledge acquisition can trigger peak aesthetic experience. This happens through significant change in understanding, which we experience as insight. Pelowski, Matthew. “Tears and transformation: feeling like crying as an indicator of insightful or ‘aesthetic’ experience with art.” Frontiers in Psychology, 23 July 2015.

“The resetting [of engagement with challenging knowledge], if it is particularly profound, is also tied to experience of harmony as well as catharsis, pleasure.” Pelowski, Matthew. “Tears and transformation: feeling like crying as an indicator of insightful or ‘aesthetic’ experience with art.” Frontiers in Psychology, 23 July 2015.

Pelowski didn’t monitor activity in people’s brains for his study, but the relationships between reward systems, knowledge acquisition, and peak aesthetic experience are certainly suggestive.

Reward and music

The evidence tying peak aesthetic experience to reward is even stronger with music.

Blood’s and Zatorre’s findings, for example, demonstrate directly that music-induced chills activate reward systems in our brains. Blood, Anne J. and Robert J. Zatorre. “Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 25 September 2001.

Although Mori and Iwanaga didn’t look at the brain’s reward systems directly, they do suggest that tears may also be associated with the brain’s reward system. However, they give a caveat: “The brain responses of the cathartic tears are still unknown.” Mori, Kazuma and Makoto Iwanaga. “Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears.” Scientific Reports, 7 April 2017.

They found that music-induced chills and music-induced tears have distinct physiological characteristics, but both trigger a subjective experience of pleasure, which is suggestive. Mori, Kazuma and Makoto Iwanaga. “Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears.” Scientific Reports, 7 April 2017.

Knowledge instinct and music

“It’s all well and good to connect peak aesthetic experience to music,” you may say, “but what does that have to do with the knowledge instinct?”

It’s a good question, and this is a point at which the imprecision of language has the potential to cause confusion.

The term knowledge seems to imply that the knowledge instinct is bounded to a realm of facts that can be apprehended and articulated. I can know that Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, for example. However, if I’m interpreting correctly, the knowledge instinct is much more basic than that.

Remember that the knowledge instinct works by continually making predictions about the world based on our mental models, evaluating the differences between those predictions and the phenomena that we actually encounter, and then updating our mental models and making new predictions.

I thought I knew my way around Venice (prediction). I discovered I was wrong (evaluation). I learned the bridge was more north and less west than I previously imagined (updating).

In fact, music is uniquely well-optimized for this prediction-evaluation-updating process. A Rhythm and melodic repetition create a strong sense of pattern and predictability. This allows our knowledge instinct to rapidly build a workable mental model. But we don’t get bored. The dynamics of music subvert its own patterns, injecting interest through variation on a theme. There are little surprises all along the way, doled out in manageable levels.

Together, this predictability and variation are like candy for our knowledge instinct. We’re engaged, constantly updating our model for where the music will go next.

Reward and the knowledge instinct

Let’s bring this back to reward and the knowledge instinct.

  • Through Schoeller and Perlovsky, we have a connection between the knowledge instinct and peak aesthetic experience.
  • From Schoeller and Perlovsky and Pelowski, we have a connection between the knowledge instinct and our brains’ reward systems when dealing with moments of insight.
  • Thanks to Blood and Zatorre and Mori and Iwanaga, we have a connection between peak aesthetic experience and music and our brain’s reward systems.

While none of these connections is definitive on their own, taken together, they’re certainly suggestive of a strong link between our knowledge instinct, peak aesthetic experience, and our brain’s reward systems. In a sense, we have a picture of the hardware (our reward systems), the software (knowledge instinct), and the experience (peak aesthetic experience).

We’ve come pretty far afield from where we started, but this little excursus about reward is important. Based on my limited understanding, it seems to be that our reward systems are the mechanism underneath the knowledge instinct’s “homeostatic” effect, which we discussed earlier. The “thirst” for knowledge — the drive that manifests in curiosity or suspense or the burning desire to know — is fueled by our reward hardware. We’re driven by a biological imperative to be constantly setting up expectations and eagerly seeking their resolution.

Expectation and story

Storytellers take advantage of our knowledge-instinct-based expectations liberally. Schoeller and Perlovsky cite Kreitler and Kreitler in calling this the “tension principle,” the idea that a storyteller sets up a dramatic situation or question but withholds crucial details that would fill in the answer. Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016. This causes the audience to remain hooked, pursuing that knowledge throughout the story until it’s finally revealed in the resolution.

“Hollywood narratives can thus be described in terms of retention of information. The answer to the dramatic question is the information that the author retains. It is what the viewer cares about, what motivates his curiosity.” Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016. (Emphasis theirs.)

This tension principle may be more familiar to students of story theory under another name. I’ve most often heard it called “narrative drive.”

Schoeller and Perlovsky point out that narrative drive only works so long as the audience believes that the storyteller is competent to provide the payoff at the end.

“If the audience suspects that the author does not hold such information, the spectatorial contract (i.e., ‘I am going to be told a story which end I shall know’) is broken, the tension principle ceases to apply, and the viewer has no good reason to wait until the end of the story.” Schoeller, Felix and Leonid Perlovsky. “Aesthetic Chills: Knowledge-Acquisition, Meaning-Making, and Aesthetic Emotions.” Frontiers in Psychology, 4 August 2016.

Our knowledge instinct, and its underlying reward systems, are pretty savvy. We won’t hang around if we think someone is just stringing us along, wasting our time. If we sense that the likelihood of payoff — of successfully updating our mental models — is low, we’ll cut our losses and run.

To keep an audience hooked, a storyteller must set up a question, spark the crucial knowledge instinct, and maintain it by helping the audience believe that the answer is coming.

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of ground. Let’s recap:

  • Adaptively, we want our mental models of the world to match reality. When we detect a discrepancy, we are driven to seek knowledge that will help us update our models. We call this the knowledge instinct.
  • The knowledge instinct is linked to our reward-seeking mechanisms.
  • We experience the knowledge instinct as a drive analogous to hunger or thirst. It manifests as curiosity, a “need to know,” which in my framework I’m calling “expectation.”
  • Storytellers can exploit this facet of human experience in order to keep audiences engaged with their stories, creating narrative drive.

As I stated at the beginning, expectation is tied to peak aesthetic experience. So, the knowledge instinct is a forward-looking drive, but it’s also associated with the destination, the moment of payoff. That, of course, is supremely germane for storytellers. We’ll talk about that soon.

Onward . . .


Note

Digital gardening epistemic status:

  • Low confidence
  • Moderate effort