Getting emotional in writing

I’ve been doing some guest blogging over at a friend’s blog dedicated to writing fiction. My latest post there discusses how the neuroscience of emotion relates to writing immersive fiction.

In 1994, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio published Descartes’ Error —- Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The book was a conversational rumination on neuroscience; at its core was Damasio’s assertion that human emotion is a sensory experience. It is felt in the skin and viscera, transmitted along the nerves that travel through the body and observed in various components of the brain. This might not sound like a revelation but Damasio was essentially discarding the belief —- held throughout much of human history —- that emotions are felt in some ethereal way by a nonmaterial human essence (what might be called a soul). Damasio’s position is at odds with most religious thought and many romantic notions (including Descartes’ famous dictum that the mind and body were separate) which have pervaded literature and philosophy for the past 200-300 years.

A reasonable question at this point is, “What does this have to do with novel writing?” After all, this is a blog dedicated to the art of creating fiction, not understanding the physiological processes that comprise human emotion. This is true enough, but describing emotion is a big part of fiction writing. Characters have emotional states, and often quite a bit of conflict is driven by these states. Ideally, an author doesn’t want to just describe the emotional state of a character, he or she wants the reader to feel (at least in some small way) these emotions. And readers want to vicariously experience what a character experiences. That’s part of the thrill of reading a book.

It goes on from there, offering several gems of information.

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