Watching anime, reading manga, playing games… Every day we interact with many kinds of content, and these make us feel things such as “excitement”, “fun”, “boredom”, etc. How do these “feelings” emerge? If we dig deep into the structures which generate these feelings in human beings, we find that our subconscious reactions play a very big role in this issue. In the present article we have pondered the relation between emotions and content, based upon our own research and tackling issues such as the connection between the experience of content and the subsequent appearance of feelings which emerge from our subconscious response to the content itself.
■ Feelings and emotions
What we usually acknowledge to be a “feeling” can be actually said to be the awareness of a bodily response we call “emotion”, and which arises deep from the subconscious. Emotions were originally a response system used for the survival of the species back when we were animals, which consisted in instantly changing our physical state depending on our environment, and conditioned either by rewards or by threats. This function ended up being burned into our DNA structures, and through the ages has served as our basis for subconsciously discerning what we like from what we don’t like. Most of these emotional responses stay down in the subconscious state, but a small part of them rise up to our consciousness as feelings.
■ The transition from emotions to feelings
As a result of our research, we can now discern a few characteristics within these emotions which rise up in the form of feelings.
1.They have a fixed amount of strength to them
Since emotions were originally a response system used for the survival of the species, they strongly respond to stimuli which signify threats or rewards, whereas their response towards events which don’t affect our lives is not very strong. The factors which most demonstrate this instinctively strong reaction are anxiety, fear, competitiveness, etc. The stronger the response, the bigger the change which takes place in one’s physical state.
2.They continue for a fixed amount of time
No matter how strong the stimulus is, if it doesn’t last more than an instant the body doesn’t consider it relevant to the survival of its species, so it doesn’t rise up into consciousness. In the case of humans, the minimum time for them to rise to consciousness is 0. If it continues for more than 5 seconds, it is then considered important.
Any emotion which clears these 2 conditions will be considered worthy of rising up to consciousness. Depending on the change in one’s physical state caused by an emotion one’s heart rate and perspiration can increase, and one’s muscles can become tense. However, with only these signs it is hard to discern whether the response is one of “fear” or of “anger”. That’s where one’s past experiences and knowledge, stored in the brain, come into play and are used to organize the external stimuli and circumstances which then allow the feeling to rise up into conscious awareness. This is why each individual will have very different feelings even towards the same stimulus.
There’s an exception to this rule, however, which is that in some cases a feeling appears even when only 1 of the 2 conditions given above are fulfilled. In these cases it’s common to jump up and shout “I didn’t expect that!” or “what a surprise!”. We usually feel that when we’re surprised, our body suddenly moves, but in fact it’s the other way around – first the body moves, and then we’re surprised. In these cases, we emit a loud shout as a protection against possible threats, and our physical state changes a little too much, causing it to move or jump in a sudden shock. In reality, at this stage we are still not consciously aware that we’ve been “surprised”. Since the body receives an excessively strong stimulus and suddenly moves, as an exception the feelings are experienced after the fact itself. This cases the reaction we know as feeling “surprised” or “shocked”.
Until now we have been focusing on content which inspires feelings of “fun”, “interest”, “emotiveness”, etc, and thinking about how to approach the creation of elements which generate this awareness in people. However, all of this happens in relation to the deeper layer of emotional response.
■ The meaning of subconscious emotions
So far we have only talked on emotions which rise up to awareness, but are the subconscious emotions meaningless when it comes to the experience of content? Not at all. Subconscious emotions also change one’s physical state. We usually can’t feel these changes, but even the smallest of these changes carry with them a huge significance. Let’s explain in more detail what we mentioned before about the brain being involved in the process of turning emotions into feelings.
People experience many different stimuli in their daily lives. Many of them are on the fringes of awareness, such as the room temperature or the sound of the clock ticking, but even these small emotions are processed one by one by the brain. The brain first decides whether that stimuli is a threat or a reward, something it likes or dislikes, and then decides what to do about it. This decision is instinctual, so most of them involve either running away, fighting, grasping at something, etc. Depending on these a different physical state will arise, and these will usually raise one’s heart rate, tense one’s muscles, and in cases where the stimuli are very intense, they will cause the body to involuntarily move in “shock” or “surprise”, as we mentioned earlier. So even though they don’t enter our conscious awareness, it can be said that these small changes in our mood exert a noticeable influence on us.
■ Looking at contents which make us “cry out loud”, and their relationship to emotions
What is the specific relation between contents and emotions? To answer this we will be focusing on the emotion of “wailing”, or “crying out loud”, and use it to help us think of the role played by emotions in regard to contents.
Sometimes we feel something that makes us cry for no reason as a reaction to it. This case is similar to the example we gave about “surprise”, in that basically a specific scene from some content may act as such a strong stimulus on us that, as a result, we involuntarily react to it. Tears from crying are the result of stored up stress in our body which is then secreted by the relaxation of the stress itself. We could define “wailing” as the result of stress being evacuated from the body after having been stored up. Apart from this release of stress, another effect of wailing is that, due to it being such an unconscious response, it leaves a strong impression on us afterwards. When we’re experiencing content, this release of stress and strong impression are closely related to the degree of satisfaction we feel. We expect this is why content which causes people to cry is more highly praised than content which doesn’t.
Also, even when crying doesn’t leave such a strong impression on us, the subconscious effect this leaves on us is a considerable one. Here are some examples of this. In a scene where the protagonist is being chased, if we think that “he / she has been cornered” we already feel a sense of danger, but if instead of a classroom setting this scene were to be set in a damp and humid place like a cavern, then the sense of danger would probably increase. Even if we don’t consciously think that “they’ve been cornered…!”, we still subconsciously react to it, and feel a sense of unease in our physical state.
■ Emotions and their relation to external circumstances
A lot of reactions from the subconscious are repressed when they try to move into awareness. This repression is due to a habit which we naturally learn as we grow older, which tells us to “not act out our emotions”. This inhibition becomes an obstacle which in many situations prevents us from honestly laughing or crying even when we feel like it.
In order to soften this inhibition we have tried to think from the perspective of one’s environment when watching content.
1.As much as you can, try to watch content in a relaxed environment
In situations where they feel like they’re inhibition their feelings, people usually notice two main influences which act strongly on them. These are the thoughts “where am I” and “who am I with”. For example, if you’re alone with your teacher in his office, or in a waiting room full of strangers, you might decided that it would be dangerous to let your emotions control you, and so you suppress any strong feelings. On the other hand, if you’re in your own room or at the house of a close friend, you might feel that there’s no danger in these situations, therefore you relax and soften the inhibition of your feelings. Therefore when we’re watching a piece of media, it’s probably a good idea to watch it in a space where we feel safe and relaxed.
2.Develop the proper posture for watching media
Just by changing our posture towards watching different genres and types of content, our way of feeling those contents will probably change. When we’re happy we lift our chest up high and stretch all of our body fully. On the reverse scenario, if we’re sad we usually curl our body up into a ball and feel small. This shows how much our feelings affect our posture, but the opposite is also true. It has been experimentally proved that our posture changes our emotions, too. So essentially, if we watch media by sitting upright in our chair, with our body fully stretched up, it will become easier for us to feel more positive. If, on the other hand, we curl our bodies up while watching media, it will be easier for us to feel negative about it. Interestingly, however, “fear” is the only exception to this rule. If instead of curling into a ball we stretch our back straight, we will feel even more afraid. It is thought that this is because the posture of curling up into a ball is a defense mechanism caused by fear, so it produces a bigger sense of security in us.
3.Watching media at night or in a dark place (wailing)
We introduced this topic by saying that one of the conditions for crying out loud is “a release of stress”. However, there is another very important condition. It is “a predominance of parasympathetic nerves”. To put it simply, it means that the body enters a state of “safety / relaxation”. Living organisms have a function which instinctively gives prominence to the parasympathetic nerves, and this allows us to reach a physical state in which we can eat properly in the mornings, move properly and relax when it’s time to sleep at night. It is what allows our bodies to relax of their own accord when night time comes. Even during the day, if we’re in a dark room our bodies sometimes mistake it as being night time, and as a result of this they activate the same effects. This might be one of the reasons why it is more emotional to watch a movie in a dark movie theater.
These are small details, but thinking about emotions and drawing our attention towards all those areas which are normally unconscious for us might change our awareness, and thus make our experience of content much richer for us.
(Article: Tsugumi Komuro)
Fields Research Institute (FRI) conducts research in entertainment.
This article was written by a member of FRI, through the original coverage of his/her interests observed in their daily lives.