Why an exciting book is just as thrilling as a hair-raising movie

Aug 13, 2008

Watching Keanu Reeves walk along the ledge of a skyscraper and lose his footing in The Matrix can make us skip a heartbeat or sweat, as if we were risking our own life. This sharing of other people's emotions in movies has been shown to depend on the fact that observers the same brain regions are activated in the observers when they feel an emotion and when they see someone else experience a similar emotion. We all know, however, that reading a book describing the same scene can be similarly gripping. This week, in a paper published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Mbemba Jabbi, Jojanneke Bastiaansen and Christian Keysers show us why.

At the NeuroImaging Center of the University Medical Center Groningen of the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), Jabbi and colleagues compared what happens in our brains when we view the facial expressions of other people with the brain activity as we read about emotional experiences.

"We placed our participants in an fMRI scanner to measure their brain activity while we first showed our subject short 3s movie clips of an actor sipping from a cup and then looking disgusted," said Christian Keysers. "Later on, we asked them to read and imagine short emotional scenarios; for instance, walking along a street, bumping into a reeking, drunken man, who then starts to retch, and realizing that some of his vomit had ended up in your own mouth. Finally, we measured their brain activity while the participants tasted unpleasant solutions in the scanner."

"Our striking result," said Keysers, "is that in all three cases, the same location of the anterior insula lit up. The anterior insula is the part of the brain that is the heart of our feeling of disgust. Patients who have damage to the insula, because of a brain infection for instance, lose this capacity to feel disgusted. If you give them sour milk, they would drink it happily and say it tastes like soda."

Prof. Keysers continued, "What this means is that whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens: we activate our bodily representations of what it feels like to be disgusted– and that is why reading a book and viewing a movie can both make us feel as if we literally feel what the protagonist is going through."

In a world that is increasingly dominated by visual media, added Keysers, this finding is good news for the written media, in particular: reading a good book or an exciting newspaper article really can feel as emotionally vivid as watching a movie.

Citation: Jabbi M, Bastiaansen J, Keysers C (2008) A Common Anterior Insula Representation of Disgust Observation, Experience and Imagination Shows Divergent Functional Connectivity Pathways. PLoS ONE 3(8): e2939. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002939 dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002939

Source: Public Library of Science

Explore further: Cold cash just keeps washing in from ALS challenge

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Cold cash just keeps washing in from ALS challenge

23 hours ago

In the couple of hours it took an official from the ALS Association to return a reporter's call for comment, the group's ubiquitous "ice bucket challenge" had brought in a few million more dollars.

Medtronic spends $350M on another European deal

Aug 27, 2014

U.S. medical device maker Medtronic is building stronger ties to Europe, a couple months after announcing a $42.9 billion acquisition that involves moving its main executive offices across the Atlantic, where it can get a ...

Mind over matter for people with disabilities

Aug 26, 2014

People with serious physical disabilities are unable to do the everyday things that most of us take for granted despite having the will – and the brainpower – to do so. This is changing thanks to European ...

Ukraine's former world's tallest man dies

Aug 25, 2014

Ukraine's tallest man, who briefly held the world record but gave it up to live as a recluse, has died due to complications from the condition that saw him never stop growing, local media reported Monday.

User comments : 0