Saturday, April 28, 2012

Physiological reactions to watching and reading stories

There is some documentation and a few theses on the physiological reactions a viewer has to watching movies or television. Here are two theses I found links to online:
Sound, colour, action and surprising events play a big part in creating that emotional impact which in turn creates the physiological reactions of increased or decreased muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased or decreased in saliva production, sweating, steady or increased breathing etc. It has been said that being engaged in watching an action movie is a little like exercising because you keep tensing your muscles to run or react just as a character you're drawn to does or when a sound and event scares you. The reactions aren't quite to the same level, as you would agree if you exercise at all, but there is definitely a reaction. If you doubt me them go watch a big, loud film where the protagonist is made to run about to survive. Enjoy, engage but pay just a little bit of attention to your reactions. You'll be surprised that it isn't only that little jump of fright you get when the monster goes "Boo!" or the explosion slams into your ears.

How many of you tensed up seeing him go through the top of the door?
Also, if you haven't watched District B13 then get cracking. It's a fantastic movie. Originally in French but you can easily get subtitled versions. Pierre Morel also directed Transporter and Taken.

Movies or shows can also create lasting reactions. During and after viewing horror you might feel anxiety, sleeplessness, fear and phobia. These all have the potential to last many years if nightmares occur, anxiety isn't addressed, and a common fear is compounded by other experiences to become phobia while phobias can be maintained by the reiteration that this particular thing is something to fear, seeming to justify the excessive reaction when average fear would have been more appropriate.

Enjoyment of a film or movie can also have a lasting effect. Laughing lots will shape the way you look at the world and also embed a particular set of ideas into your mind as enjoyable or worthy of laughter. Desire felt can also further shape your sexual preferences, although it is very unlikely to change your base drives. 

So it continues. Many studies, whether watertight or not, have been done on the impact of movies and television as there is some concern over the shows viewed shaping the mentality of the young. Will a person watching violent shows as a child grow up to be more violent than otherwise?

Hard question to answer but my personal opinion is that the shows just feed you information on how to act on your rage and how to disregard your own morals if there is adequate need. It doesn't make you essentially angrier to begin with. Just more knowledgeable on how to act on it which is, I suppose, what many wouldn't like and yet many others would, depending on the job you are aiming for. Not everyone in society is asked or required to be quiet and peaceful. But I guess, even if you lacked the training you can get that if you prove yourself aggressive in a useful way.

Why we watch is another matter but it does involve emotional responses, endorphins and addiction.

So do we have physiological reactions to written words? 

In short, yes. I bet you've had sleepless nights, sat there tense in your seat, been traumatised by a book's topic and felt your skin scrawl at particularly gruesome descriptions. I bet you might have also felt a tingle of desire at reading a well written sex scene. Ever feel stressed, tense or nervous while reading a book? What about that physical punch of betrayal that hits near the heart? Have you ever cried? Emotions and physiological reactions go hand in hand so it isn't surprising that if you've emotionally invested yourself in a character or story that you'll feel some of what they are portrayed to. It isn't surprising that it reflects in your body's reactions. 

Unfortunately there aren't so many studies available on the impact of seeing written words on the human system. I believe we are less worried about it although I'm not entirely sure why, given that many of those scary and violent movies and shows were originally books, in which the gore is explicitly explained. Same goes for sex scenes. There might not be a picture but there is one painted in words and the safety of the characters is not always mentioned as a concern, leading a reader to consider that particular acts would be fine to try without proper knowledge being applied.

Writing is an almost direct line from a mind to media without regard for the reader's reaction unless marketing knowledge is forcefully applied to the imagination and thought processes or used upon editing. As such subjects are often explored to great depths and with an almost complete disregard as to how acceptable the topics are, the words used are and whether the way any of it is said is offensive. This is why when you write a letter, email, message or notice it doesn't receive nearly as much attention as required for the content to be acceptable - see my writing in anger post. If the writer is intending to market the work to a wide audience containing varied opinions and appreciations then the content of the work will be adjusted accordingly.

Never undervalue the careful use of the editing process. It is like remembering your pleases and thankyous.

So for the most part what follows is part my understanding of what happens through years upon years of reading and part observation, general knowledge and what little is gleaned from researching the topic.

In stories constructed purely of the written word physiological reactions also occur but the immediacy is dulled by the lack of sound indicators, flashing movement and quick surprises (there is surprise but, as noted, the immediacy is lost so you don't jump in your seat when reading a surprising event, you just mentally say "Oh!" or "Huh?" and move on, thinking as you read).

The impact of the written word is dulled to the point where only the active use of the imagination can fire a strong physiological reactions. Just scanning without engaging will not bring about such reactions unless you flip across indicator words like:

  • Hate
  • War
  • Rape
  • Torture
  • Hope
  • Feast
  • (A list of naughty words) - this is a youths friendly site thank you so I can talk about sex but just not be explicit. Youths do actually know such a thing exists.
  • Death
Most words we pay attention to when scanning will be of the negative variety or connected with desires such as sex and food as we tend to instinctively keep an eye out for threats more than we tend to keep an eye out for love or relaxation. That is all connected to survivalism and not pessimism.

While scanning, the rest of the words become filler and are by and large ignored unless containing content relevant to your search - the reason why you are scanning rather than reading.

As such, at its basest level - when presented separately - the written word has a stronger impact when it refers to a threat, to our desire and to our survival. Many argue that fear should be gotten rid of or that it is useless. This is completely the wrong way to approach life. Phobias, the overreaction to things feared, are crippling so this type of fear also pose a problem regarding survival. Fear, just plain fear over a thing or event, is a reaction that will help you survive and so should be embraced when felt and acted upon. Don't just stand there wondering what it is you're feeling and why. Move! React!

Side note:
The same goes for pain, hate, disgust etc. You are meant to react. Pain tells you something is wrong and needs attention. Emotional pain is the same just that it likely deals with relationships and your thoughts rather than a physical problem to attend to before you bleed out or drop dead. If you feel pain and have the chance to react be thankful. Not everyone feels pain the same way, some can't at all, and so their ability to react in a timely manner is inhibited.

So if writing has its greatest impact when words, topics and ideas related to survivalism are used then inserting fear, cynicism, hope, betrayal and desire into your work, both in words and in the events will ensure that your book has the greatest impact it could have.

Love you ask? Love isn't necessary for survival but it does help it. It is a long term emotional response and not an immediate. It makes you act to protect and care but it doesn't impact upon you unless you feel love in the first place. By that I mean reading and viewing love won't make you love, it just refers you to what you do know if you do at all. Otherwise, it is intangible. Writing on love and inserting the word love in a text has less impact than sex or desire because the latter has a more immediate connection to survivalism than the former. Something has to be there to be loved (partner, child, friend or family) in order for love to be felt and how that something comes about is through sex and desire. Desire is the initial draw card to love, leading to both love and sex, leading to move beings to love and protect. At the moment it is a chicken and egg question but without desire you'd only have rape, possessiveness and violence so no matter whether it is the chicken or the egg I'm completely thankful that love is in our list of emotions.

So can you see why love stories, now that censorship has been reduced, have crept closer and closer to porn? Why the writers are more concerned with physical appearances and why so many people read them for the sex scenes alone - of which the average number is growing from 3 per book? Why they are sold with covers focused on the physical attractiveness of a character? Why you almost never (I only added the almost in case there really is one out there) see an ugly but intelligent and loving man portrayed on the cover? Why you almost never see the same for a woman?

I should also mention that desire could be expressed as hunger or greed, both of which have great impact.

Love, protracted sadness, trust, thoughtfulness, awe, appreciation and such like have less of an impact than those topics directly related to survivalism. This is not to say they have no impact, just that the impact is less and so the read is more calming and 'light' as we call it. This is why love stories are sold as chic lit and chic lit is portrayed as airy nothingness read for the sole pleasure of wiling away an afternoon in relaxation, without challenges. This is quite false as chic lit and love stories can address some rather heavy and demanding issues. Still, the impression remains as the focus of the book is usually about a topic that has a lesser impact on your body.

That just leaves you wondering where humour falls, doesn't it?

Humour is made by playing with ideas to create laughter. Play is essential to survivalism as it also is part of invention and finding solutions to problems. Humorous topics do actually have a great impact upon the reader but this isn't always the case when only a word is shown, unless it is classed as naughty. In the following case "smile" likely doesn't make you smile near as much as seeing the word "fart".

Humorous events and topics can be used for the greatest impact but separate words such as laugh and smile don't create as strong a reaction as those words related to survivalism. Words like laugh and smile are limited by memories and associations (you can create a more direct association if you use "fart" than "laugh"). Showing laugh and smile to someone won't create humour without a reference. It will only refer the viewer to a humorous event or situation they know of.

Also, the most powerful reactions would be smiling or laughing and a slight calming of the system from the release of endorphins. Writing an entire event or a series of comic events that keep a reader laughing throughout will create a lasting impact though, especially if it becomes one that can be referred to on use of the words smile or laugh.

So humour sits at the halfway mark and has its most powerful impact if explored in full.

On another side note: The best humour for creating a lasting reaction is known as black humour. Anything that approaches and breaks taboos will last a long time in a readers or viewers memory. Watch this for why.

So for a writer to achieve the most resounding physiological impact and thus a reader's deep connection to a story the writer should include topics or events that induce fear, cynicism, hope, humour, betrayal and desire.

But books with great impacts and heavy themes aren't the only ones to sell well. If there is a glut in the difficult books market then writing a book with less of a physiological impact might be advisable. In which case including topics and events that inspire love, protracted sadness, trust, thoughtfulness, awe and appreciation could help you sell your book as your book would then allow the reader to relax and meander through your work at leisure.

It is up to the writer and publisher to chose the appropriate topic and style as both heavily engaging books and alight reads are enjoyable and worthy or reading.

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