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ANR funded project

Emotion(s), cognition, comportement (EMCO) 2011

Fiction in Emotion

Fictions of all kinds (involving images, novels, plays, operas, ballets, movies) generate a rich fund of emotional experience in a large audience. For over forty years, aestheticians have struggled with the “paradox of fiction”, which is the issue of how we can get emotionally involved with fictional characters and events. What is the nature of sadness or joy which is not tied to a real personal loss or satisfaction? The FICTION project addresses this issue with the aim of understanding the nature of our emotional responses and their dependence on the cognitive background.

Empirical evidence suggests that involvement with fiction as such is associated with a disengagement or inhibition of the episodic system involving limbic structures such as the hippocampus, which underlies episodic experiences (either memory of personal events or self-projections into the future), to the benefit of other cerebral areas implicated in semantic processes such as fronto-temporal areas. Moreover, the episodic system is arguably an essential component of the emotional responses towards real people and events. On that basis, our main hypothesis, to be assessed at both conceptual and empirical levels, is that emotional responses towards fictional scenes identified as such are what we call “semantic emotions”, a species of emotions to be distinguished from real-life emotions. On our view, “semantic emotions” are emotional experiences that disengage the episodic system, and are mainly modulated by semantic circuits (whence our terminological choice). We surmise that “semantic emotions” are stirred up by emotional fictional scenes as soon as they are recognized as fictional.

On the conceptual level, FICTION aims at offering contributions to both general philosophy of mind and aesthetics. First, FICTION will focus on the claim that “semantic emotions” form a psychological natural kind. FICTION will assess the hypothesis that even if “semantic emotions” are characterized at the sub-personal level by a disengagement or inhibition of the episodic system, they are unique experiences at the personal level of the conscious subject. Second, the implications of this claim to philosophical aesthetics will be explored. We suspect that this new concept of emotions provides a new way of looking at the paradox of fiction, by bridging the gap between issues about the role of the self in our interactions with fiction and issues about the nature of our emotional responses to fiction.

On the empirical level, FICTION will elaborate protocols in experimental psychology and neuroscience to understand the processes at the root of emotional responses to fictional and non-fictional type-identical scenes, and the role of the awareness of the fictional or non-fictional aspect of the scene in these processes. By exploiting the capabilities provided by SenseCam, a wearable digital camera, FICTION will recreate in the lab the conditions of emotional encoding. FICTION will have participants wearing SenseCam while viewing clips of fictional scenes of various emotional valences, as well as viewing type-identical non-fictional scenes in natural environments. FICTION will then investigate the impact of fictional content on emotional processing and the neural correlates of “semantic emotions” by conducting a fMRI study to measure brain networks activated in response to images shot in these various conditions.

FICTION is the first scientific project to put forward the “semantic emotions” hypothesis, to operationalize this hypothesis and to construe as “semantic emotions” at least some of the emotions that can be enjoyed in fictional contexts. FICTION has wide applications since its hypothesis concerns vast populations who, engaged with fictions, enjoy being thrust into various emotional “semantic states” without paying the neural episodic price that the non-fictional analogues of these states would require.


IJN Institut Jean-Nicod

LPNCog Laboratoire de Psychologie et Neuropsychologie Cognitives

ANR grant: 294 934 euros
Beginning and duration: - 36 mois


ANR Programme: Emotion(s), cognition, comportement (EMCO) 2011

Project ID: ANR-11-EMCO-0008

Project coordinator:
Monsieur Pelletier JÉRÔME (Institut Jean-Nicod)


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The project coordinator is the author of this abstract and is therefore responsible for the content of the summary. The ANR disclaims all responsibility in connection with its content.