(Feature) The Biological Basis of Story

The eminent neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, who pioneered the study of emotion in mammals, is famous for, among other things, tickling rats in the lab to make them laugh, but his work wasn’t a joke. He discovered that all mammals, including humans, share the same seven emotional pathways, commonly identified as: fear, care, lust, rage, panic/grief, seeking, and play.

These are not inferred “predispositions” teased from statistical analysis of animal behavior. Panskepp identified specific anatomical circuits for each system, complete with distinct hormones and neurotransmitters. Fear, for example, runs from the amygdala through the hypothalamus to the brainstem and then down the spinal cord.

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In my industry, publishing, we talk about emotions in a different way. You often hear, for example, that a good story should give the reader a satisfactory emotional experience.

You also see another seven-item list: the “standard” genres. There’s no uniformity, of course. According to Wikipedia, the critics’ list is: romance, western, inspirational, crime, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Other sources will provide something different.

Ultimately, any list is going to be somewhat arbitrary. If we look at dollar sales, for example, we see that “Children’s books” is the second-largest category overall, after textbooks. People still read to their kids, it seems.

Restricting ourselves to fiction, romance alone accounts for about half of all dollars spent by adults, with “inspirational” taking up another quarter or so. Then comes everything else: thriller, mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, comedy, western, and so on.

After reading about Panskepp’s discoveries recently, it struck me that his seven emotional pathways easily map to the most commercially successful genres. Horror, for example, is obviously meant to inspire fear, while inspirational dramas are clearly meant to invoke feelings of care, and so on.

At first glance, then, we might propose something like the following, where emotional pathways are on the left and genres on the right:

Fear=>Horror
Care=>Inspirational
Lust=>Romance
Rage=>Mystery
Panic/Grief=>Thriller
Seeking=>Science fiction
Play=>Children’s books

But that left perennially popular genres like fantasy out in the cold, not to mention a host of smaller ones, like comedy and western and all of “high literature.”

This is where we need to be careful with our hierarchy. Unlike mystery or horror, genres like western and fantasy are established primarily by their setting rather than their thematic or emotional content, so mapping them to emotional pathways is comparing apples and oranges. Some kind of grouping is required.

Fantasy is often lumped together with sci-fi under the cumbersome heading “speculative fiction,” and for good reason. I would add western to that. Indeed, in the early days, most sci-fi was western, with the “sheriff” riding a rocket ship rather than a horse and slinging a blaster rather than a revolver to corral the unruly inhabitants of an alien rather than North American frontier.

Thus, we might say:

Seeking=>Adventure/Discovery
where that includes sci-fi, fantasy, western, nautical fiction, jungle stories, and so on — anything where the protagonist, in trying to discover something about the world, has an encounter with the Other.

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I would propose ‘play’ similarly maps to a group of genres, some of which are not on the critics’ standard list — not just children’s books (a whopper in terms of dollar sales), but comedies, romcoms, cozy mysteries, and so on.

If the science is right, then the classic dichotomy invented by the Greeks, where everything is either tragedy or comedy, is probably bunk — or at least too simplistic to be meaningful.

I never liked it, to be honest. It implied a normative hierarchy. Tragedy is serious. Comedy is not. Note the lack of anything comedic on the critics’ list, as if children’s books don’t count. Note also how popular comedians — from Tom Hanks to Robin Williams to Bill Murray — turn to tragic acting late in their careers in order to be taken seriously, as if making people laugh was inferior to making them cry.

(Personally, I think it’s relatively easy to make people cry. Making them laugh is both more difficult and more meaningful.)

Literature, by the way, accounts for only a few percentage points’ worth of all dollars spent, just as arthouse films are perpetually dwarfed by blockbusters. As forms of high art, we would expect such works to operate on multiple pathways, and also to engage the prefrontal cortex, the non-emotional part of the brain. Literature can be moving or it can be cerebral; it can activate all pathways or it can activate none.

But here we need to be clear with labels. ‘Rage pathway’ doesn’t refer to that specific emotion. It’s shorthand for the collection of wires in your head, the physical, neuroanatomical system that mediates that entire class of emotions. In the case of the ‘lust’ circuit, that would be almost anything to do with sex and reproduction, including romantic relationships, jealousy, and the rest.

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It’s also important not to assume that a genre has to operate exclusively in its primary system. Like sci-fi, a horror can also be an encounter with the radical Other, just a terrifying one. Classic stories like Frankenstein and The Thing live on that border and can, through the narrative, invoke other pathways as well, such as humor and care.

The idea, though, is that for a book (or film or game) to resonate with an audience, emotionally, it must activate at least one of these systems; that genre is a way of advertising which emotional experience is being offered; and finally, that the marketing is dependent on the biology. In other words, this phenomenon exists independently of whatever labels are applied by retailers.

Genre, as a mode of expression, is still culturally defined. Western audiences, for example, are often confused by Bollywood horror, where, in the midst of being chased by an army of zombies, the protagonists will spontaneously break into song and dance before suddenly resuming their flight. But that culturally-specific expression sits atop a biology common to all humans — indeed, to all mammals.

It seems clear that thrillers — works by John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Tom Clancy — activate the ‘panic/grief’ circuit. These books usually start with some calamitous trigger that sets the protagonist running. Indeed, the cover art for almost any thriller novel features a desperate figure fleeing a shadowy threat.

Those threats are political rather than otherworldly: terrorists, foreign agents, corrupt politicians, etc. Thrillers, then, are fueled by in-group sympathies (like patriotism) and out-group suspicion of the kind we’d expect to be mediated by a panic/flight response, where there’s a potential threat to the herd that must be repelled by its capable guardians. No wonder this is the most popular genre for military authors and their readers.

Horror clearly activates the ‘fear’ pathway just as inspirational/melodrama does ‘care.’ Romance activates ‘lust.’ Adventure/discovery books activate ‘seeking.’ Children’s books, comedy, and the rest activate ‘play.’ That leaves mystery, and related genres like suspense, assigned to the ‘rage’ pathway more or less by process of elimination.

But remember, ‘rage’ is just a label that stands for the full range of associated emotions, in this case madness, violence, obsession, enmity, and so on. Indeed, the word madness comes from the classic belief that one can get so angry — so mad — as to lose one’s mind… and commit murder.

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The classic mystery opens with a crime — a suspicious death, a theft, a kidnapping or other disappearance — where the detective must uncover not only the identity of the perpetrator but the reason why they did it: the source of the passion that led to the crime.

A mystery doesn’t need to make the reader feel angry, although it can. Often we’re invited to sympathize with the killer, for example, where what made them angry also makes us angry. (It’s just that they went too far.) Many of Agatha Christie’s victims were despicable people who “deserved” to die for the way they mistreated others, which all of us can relate to.

It’s worth noting that Mrs. Christie isn’t just the most popular mystery writer ever but the single best-selling author of all time!

By contrast, in Seicho Matsumoto’s award-winning Inspector Imanishi Investigates, the reader is invited not to sympathize with the killer’s rage but to feel angry at him. Japanese society is highly communitarian. Its people value personal commitment and teamwork above all else. But it’s also very class-based. For a lower-class man to cheat his way into wealth and then kill to cover it up is a horrible transgression, especially in the aftermath of the war, when everyone else was struggling.

The eponymous inspector satiates our anger, as the detective is always meant to do, by catching the offender and bringing him to justice. And indeed the theme of justice — betrayed and fulfilled — is central to the genre, especially in its hard-boiled guises, where what angers us most is our powerlessness to effect justice, which is of course what the P.I. does on our behalf.

This explains why commercially successful books where the murderer gets away with it are so rare and mostly confined to literature. Here I don’t mean the case of a “justified” killing, where either the murderer is the protagonist (who we hope gets away with it) or the detective discovers the truth but lets the killer go. I mean a true unjustified murder where the detective simply fails and the killer “wins.” Such books are unsatisfying and make up an abysmally small proportion of all mystery consumed.

In as much as the western genre is defined primarily by its setting, some westerns will activate ‘rage’ over ‘seeking, where, for example, the gunslinger is out to get revenge on the men who killed his wife and family. If he fails and they get away with it, our anger isn’t satiated.

I recognize this framework is speculative. However, given that the neuroscience is well established and that the sales data confirm the perennial popularity of a handful of key genres, that suggests there is some kind of relationship. Neither biology nor culture are neatly digital processes. We should not be surprised if the mapping is fuzzy in places.

But the model, if correct, is important, and for several reasons. First, it explains why certain genres and not others are the most beloved of readers: because we’re hardwired to enjoy them.

Second, it suggests we’re unlikely to see any new phyla of genre fiction since we’ve tapped all our innate pathways — although of course new modes and new individual genres will periodically appear.

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art by Joel Rea

Third, it explains how literary authors create more nuanced emotional experiences — by blending multiple pathways — and why that’s so difficult to do well.

Furthermore, if the common wisdom is correct and the whole point of any work of narrative fiction is to give the reader a “satisfactory emotional experience,” then the model explains failure: how a book’s inability to activate one of these pathways, and to provide release, will necessarily leave readers flat or confused.

Finally, in as much as the seven pathways are evolved survival responses, highly conserved across mammalian species, the model suggests that advanced intelligent life on other planets might tell similar stories, or at least similar enough to be thematically recognizable.

I find that comforting, that stable behavioral responses to disparate conditions, even perhaps on different worlds (which are, after all, made of the same chemistry and physics), might mean we can find a common narrative — if not with aliens, then at least with each other.

But then, anyone who’s a reader already knew that.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”                                        -Ursula K. Le Guin

Here is the final tally:

Fear=>Horror/Suspense
Care=>Inspirational/Melodrama
Lust=>Romance/Erotica
Rage=>Mystery/Crime
Panic/Grief=>Thriller
Seeking=>Adventure/Discovery
Play=>Children’s books/Comedy

What do you think?