ArticlePDF Available

The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination

  • Barnet Enfield & Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust


This paper examines the life and work of Stephen King in the light of recent brain research. His words, taken from his interviews and writings will be examined in relation to some of these scientific findings. It will be argued that he has an intuitive insight into key brain mechanisms and deploys that knowledge in the construction of his novels. This concordance is proposed as a possible explanation for his phenomenal success. The analysis will be in 3 parts, Childhood, Writing, and Mechanisms. King's childhood experience of adversity and its impact on his life and work will be explored in terms of the research on Anxious Attachment. The role played by critical relationships in his development and the theme of altruistic bonds so prevalent in his novels (The Stand, Shawshank, IT, etc) will be related to a study of oxytocin and fiction. Regarding his writing, King's fecund productivity and vivid imagery will be examined in terms of the studies on the personality trait of High Sensation Seeking. The volume of output and the reported pressure he writes under will be evaluated in relation to the state of Flow. Using King's own statements, his views on authorial strategies will be contrasted with the findings of research studies into Theory of Mind, empathy, suspense, and narrative transportation. It is hoped that this analysis will open new avenues of evaluating and appraising the achievements of Stephen King
IOSR Journal of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS)
Volume 25, Issue 9, Series 8 (September. 2020) 44-53
e-ISSN: 2279-0837, p-ISSN: 2279-0845.
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 44 |Page
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive
Dr Lawrence Ratna
Hon. Consultant Psychiatrist
St. Anns Hospital, London
This paper examines the life and work of Stephen King in the light of recent brain research. His words, taken
from his interviews and writings will be examined in relation to some of these scientific findings. It will be
argued that he has an intuitive insight into key brain mechanisms and deploys that knowledge in the construction
of his novels. This concordance is proposed as a possible explanation for his phenomenal success.The analysis
will be in 3 parts, Childhood, Writing, and Mechanisms. King‘s childhood experience of adversity and its
impact on his life and work will be explored in terms of the research on Anxious Attachment. The role played
by critical relationships in his development and the theme of altruistic bonds so prevalent in his novels (The
Stand, Shawshank, IT, etc) will be related to a study of oxytocin and fiction. Regarding his writing, King's
fecund productivity and vivid imagery will be examined in terms of the studies on the personality trait of High
Sensation Seeking. The volume of output and the reported pressure he writes under will be evaluated in relation
to the state of Flow. Using King's own statements, his views on authorial strategies will be contrasted with the
findings of research studies into Theory of Mind, empathy, suspense, and narrative transportation. It is hoped
that this analysis will open new avenues of evaluating and appraising the achievements of Stephen King
KEYWORDS: Horror, Neurobiology, Stephen King, Empathy, Fear, Suspense
Date of Submission: 05-09-2020 Date of Acceptance: 20-09-2020
The last three decades havewitnessed remarkable advances in brain research thathaveprovided us with
new insights into the mechanisms that mediate consciousness. This paper will seek to apply some of these
insights to better understand the life and work of the remarkable author Stephen King. His words, borrowed
from his interviews and writings, will be examined in relation to some of these scientific findings. Further, it
will be argued that King has an intuitive insight into critical neuralmechanisms,which he deploys in the
construction of his novels. The concordance between Kings views on writing and the findings of these scientific
studies is proposed as a possible explanation for his phenomenal success.
An analysis of King‘s childhood, writing and authorial strategies will be conducted. King‘s childhood
experience of adversity and its impact on his life and work will be explored in light of the research on anxious
attachment styles(Bowlby 1977).Additionally, role critical relationships play in his development and theme of
altruistic bonds,so prevalent in his novels and stories such as The Stand, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank
Redemption andIt, will be associated with a study of the link between oxytocin and fiction. Regarding his
writing, Kings fecund productivity and vivid imagery will be examined in terms of studies on the personality
traitof High SensationSeeking(HSS). Furthermore, the volume of output and reported pressure he writes under
will be evaluated in terms of the state of Flow. Finally, using Kings own statements, his views on authorial
strategies will be contrasted with the findings of studies onthe theory of mind, empathy, suspense and narrative
The Neurophysiology of Horror
According to Stephen King,there are three types of responses he seeks to induce in the mind of the
reader.Theres terror on top, the finest emotion any writer can induce, then horror and, on the very lowest level
of all, the gag instinct of revulsion(King 1989: 50).It should be noted that horror has affinities to porn, in that, it
trades on the ability of the media to arouse not only fantasies and emotions in the beholder but also intense
physiological responses, which form a critical part of its impact. Porn excites the erotic, whereas horror fiction
is rooted in arousing the twin emotions of fear and disgust. Fear is a primeval emotion, designed by evolution to
deal with danger by triggering the fight or flight response. King distinguishes between two types of fear, terror
and horror. Joseph Ledoux (2017) postulates that there are two ―fear circuits‖ delivering the response to threat
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 45 |Page
the low road and the high road. The low road is a quick direct primitive response that could be seen to constitute
horror. The high road is a longer circuit involving higher brain functions, which could denote terror . Functional
neuroimaging studies of the brain support King‘s distinction. Hudson et al (2020) found two types of activation
Acute and Sustained. The acute pattern that conforms to terror, mobilizes parts of the brain that heighten
sensory awareness of sound, vision, and touch. Vigilance levels are elevated, and the environment is scanned for
potential dangers in a state of dread. King commenting on two stories states ―It's what the mind sees that makes
these stories such quintessential tales of terror. It is the unpleasant speculation‖ (King 198:20). In this study, the
magnitude the fear response was greater when the threat was uncertain, unidentifiable or ambiguous. King
argues that the terror of the unknown is the ―finest variant‖ ―You can scare people with the unknown for a long,
long time‖ (King 1981: 117). The Acute response corresponds with horror and is mediated by activation of the
brain areas involved with emotion, evaluation and action. (Hudson et al 2020; Lehne and Koelsch, 2015)
Disgust is an emotional response structured to detect the putrefied and the pathogenic so they can be
avoided (Rozin et al. 2008). In the brain fear and disgust both share some of the same neural networks, making
them as King conceives them to be, emotions that are synergistic, amplifying each other(Morales et al
2012).Fear increases mental and physical arousal and narrows the focus of attention; disgust magnifies the
fixation on the noxious stimulus (Cisler et Al. 2009).The disgust response also augments certain additional
reactions such as nausea, which King labels as the gag instinct of revulsion‖. Physical disgust such as the
reaction to a putrefying corpse is processed by the same brain structures, that mediate moral disgust, as in the
response to unfairness or injustice(Klucken et al. 2012, Kalisch et al.2006). Hein et al (2010) found that when
the agents of morally disgusting acts are defeated, the brains dopamine reward system is triggered, creating a
positive sense of satisfaction . King‘s novels have a teleological moral arc that modulates this brain pattern. In
The Outsiderfor example he arouses physical disgust by describing the details of the brutal sadistic killing of
a child. He also induces moral disgust at the unfairness in the way an innocent suspect and his family are
treated. A triumphant catharsis of these feelings is created in the exciting climax where the monstrous ―outsider
is destroyed. The tropes of horror, that King actively deploys can be seen to speak to the brain's most primal
mechanisms mediating attention and emotion.
The Delights of Danger
A fundamental fallacy about fear is that it is always aversive. However, low and controlled doses of
fear can be arousing, enjoyable and even exhilarating. Ecstatic states stemming from a sense of awe to the
sublime have always been conceived as having a patina of fear. This is reflected in the popularity of a variety of
fear-inducing diversions, from the popularity of horror films to the attraction of haunted houses, from the thrill
of roller coasters to the adrenaline rush of dangerous sports. King better emphasizes the pleasure derived from
fear by drawing on examples such as The rides in the amusement park that mimic violent death, things like the
parachute drop where you get to experience your own plane crash, the bumper cars where you get to have a
harmless head-on collision, and so on(King et al. 1989:11).The positive effects of confronting these fears are
exemplified in the studiesbased onbungee jumpers (Hennig et al. 1994; Castella et al. 2020). These studies have
shown that the jumpers not only experience exhilaration but also enhanced cognitive functions, and elevations in
their endorphins and immune responses as a consequence.Other studies (Luo et al. 2018)show that facing fear
and successfully surviving it triggers the dopamine rewardsystemthat makesthe experiencepleasurable.It also
enhances self-esteem (Woolf 2018). The enjoyment of fear is not to everyones taste. A neurocognitive variable
that marks out the lovers of dangerous delights is a personality trait called Sensation Seeking (SS). Several
studies (Greene et al. 2005; Edwards 1984)indicate an association between the enjoyment of horror films and
the trait of sensation seeking.This association is greatest in individuals who are male(Zuckerman 1986) and have
low levels of empathy (Aluja-Fabregat 2000). The disinhibition factor of desiring to feel out of control was the
best predictor for women (Cantor and Sparks1984).
Marvin Zuckerman who pioneered the concept in his research states,Sensation seeking is a personality
trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings that are varied, novel, complex and intense, and by the
readiness to take risks for the sake of such experiences(Zuckerman 1994: 27).Further, his research infers that
SS is a biologically driven component of the human personality(Zuckerman 1994).Whilst much of the research
has focused on studying the physically challenging, the concept also includes the search for the mentally
challenging as appears to be the case with Stephen King. His SS trait is most manifest in its openness to
experience component. This is constituted by the craving for intense novel experiences in the fields of
imagination, feelings, aesthetics and ideas(Zuckerman 1994; Aluja et al. 2004).
The Fascination of a Frightened Child
One of the paradoxical facets of King‘s childhood is that despite being an anxiety-ridden child, he
experienced an irresistible attraction to the dark and terrifying. This feature of his life will be explored in two
stages. The first will document the evidence that he did, exhibit apropensity forseeking the thrill of fear from a
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 46 |Page
very early age and this drive evolved over time. This is relevant to the frequency with which issues in his
childhood are echoed in his life and novels. In the second stage, various aspectsof his life will be examined to
assess whether he had a personality trait called High Sensation Seeking, which couldexplain this contradiction.
In his autobiographical statements, King describes himself as a man with a permanent address in the
People‘s Republic of Paranoia‘ (Rozak 2008: 10). Yet, despite the pervasive anxieties, phobias, nightmares, and
night terrors that plagued his childhood, he admits to being preoccupied with horror from an early age. King
articulates, I was always interested in monsters. I read Fate magazine omnivorously. There are good
psychological reasons for my attraction to horror stories as a kid(Allen 1979).King experienced fear and
fascination in equal measure. Like the barracks dog in From a Buick 8, he would simultaneously howl in terror
and yank forward as if in the grip of some ecstatic magnetism(King 2018: 37).At age four, King had a sudden,
shocking and brutal confrontation with death.
About an hour after I left, I came back (she said) as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of
that day; I would not tell her why I‘d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home…It
turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing
the tracks (years later,my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). I have no memory
of the incident at all.(King 2010: 55)
When the mind is subjected to excessive levels of shock, it often shuts out that experience through a
phenomenon known asAutobiographical Amnesia (Stanilou et al 2018). This experience, however, did not dim
King‘s penchant for horror. In that year itself, he felt impelled to listen to radio programmes his mother deemed
unsuitable for his age. King declares,
My first experience with real horror came at the hands of Ray Bradbury it was an adaptation of his
story ‗Mars Is Heaven!‘ on Dimension X. This would have been broadcast around 1951, which would have
made me four at the time. I asked to listen and was denied permission by my mother. ‗It‘s on too late,‘ she said.
And it would be much too upsetting for a little boy your age[] and my mother‘s words echo down to me
over the years like a voice in an uneasy dream that has never really ended: ‗Too upsetting … upsetting []
upsetting( King 2010: 74).
From that night onwards, like many fear-stricken children, he could not sleep without the lights on.
Even to this day, this fear haunts him in hotel rooms. I always leave the light on in the bathroom when I am in a
hotel [...]It‘s so the thing under the bed can‘t get out and get me(King et al.1989:12).
Studies on children exposed to horror media conducted by Cantor (2004; 2006) have documented the
immediate and long-term negative psychological effects that King records. Undeterred by the intensity and
variety of his anxiety symptoms from age five, especially in the eight months when he did not attend first grade
due to an illness, King vicariously devoured comic books full of horrific tales and illustrations. King documents,
The stuff I was drawn to was built in as part of my equipment [] My mom hated those gruesome E. C.
Comics of the fifties, but she let me read them [] until the nightmares started[](King et al. 1989: 210). He
records the impact that Stevenson‘s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had on him, explaining,
She (mother) read us Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when I was six[...] I never forgot it[...]I lived and died
with that story [...] I can remember lying in bed, wakeful after that night‘s reading was done(Beahm 1991: 17).
The fascination with the dark and draggling horrors on the nightside of the universe, as King writes in
Pet Sematary, was extended by weekly visits to the cinema.
I always went. It was at the Ritz that I saw I Married a Monster from Outer Space with Tom Tryon,
The Haunting[] Chris and I liked just about any horror movie, but our faves [] (were) directed by Roger
Corman, with titles cribbed from Edgar Allan Poe.(King 2014: 17)
The vivid visual nature of Kings narratives, which have made him the most adapted author ever, may
have its origins in the visual imprinting of the graphic comics he read and the films he saw as a child. His close
childhood friend Chris Chesley observed,‗He learned to write from what he saw on the screen at the Ritz
theatre (Beahm 2015: 73).King agrees‗I still see things cinematically. I write down everything I see. It seems
like a movie to me, and I write thatway‘ (Beahm 1919: 17). As he grew older, his reading became more
sophisticated. He read Bram Stokers Dracula at age eleven and regards the discovery of H.P. Lovecraft at
fourteen as a turning point in his life:‗it was his seriousness as much as anything else which that (my) interior
dowsing rod responded to(King 2014: 102).
High Sensation Seeking (HSS) Trait
Stephen King has repeatedly stated that his penchant for the dark side was something innate in him.
This conforms to what a personality trait is. In his own words, I was built with a love of the night and the
unquiet coffin (King 2014: 158).Studies(Zuckerman and Litle 1986)have observedthat HSS individualsshow a
greater interest in morbid themes, whereas people with low SS were found to find these themes distasteful and
thus avoid them.High sensation seekers preferred the complexity, ambiguity and incongruity of surreal art,
compared to low SS who liked their art to be representational (Furnham and Avison 1997). Tests of creativity on
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 47 |Page
HSS individuals show that they have a greater capacity for original thinking and are attracted to speculative,
bizarre, pseudoscientific ideas(Twomey et al 1998). In the introduction to Dreamscapes and Nightmares, King
asserts, I believed all that weird stuff because I was built to believe in weird stuff[] during the years from six
to eleven, crucial years in which the human imagination is largely formed, they were very real to me(King
1993:9).They tend to engage in primary process, oneiric thinking (Schultz and Schultz 2016: 383).
Sometimes for a kid, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line and that‘s the way
that we think and dream [...] and because I equate that sort of dream state with a heightened sort of mental state
[] (Smith 1989)
In the introduction to Dreamscapes and Nightmares King asks, Waking? Sleeping? Which side of the
line are the dreams really on?(King 1993:12).He further adds that when he stops working on abook, after
completing itthe stream of thought that drives his creativity still surges on. According to King,
When I go to bed at night, I have all these crazy dreams, usually not very pleasant ones because
whatever machinery that you have that goes into writing stories, it doesn‘t want to stop. So if it‘s not going on
the page, it has to go somewhere, and I have these mind dreams(Green 2014).
Studies show that across cultures, Sensation Seeking subscales correlate with a capacity for vivid
imagery(Blankstein1976; Rao 1978). As King describes it,My imagination was too big for my head at that
point, and so I spent a lot of miserable hours[] With the kind of imagination, I had, you couldn‘t switch off
the images once you‘d triggered them[](Norden 1983).
King also displays many features associated with the trait. For example, SS is a more powerful
predictor of initial drug use and abuse across drug categories than any other measure of one‘s personality or
psychopathology (Donohew et al. 1999; Jaffe and Archer 1987).King was a smoker from his teen years. He
smoked two packs a day, even in dire poverty. Alcohol is another common problem for individuals with HSS.
King confesses, I started drinking by age 18 [] I was drinking like, a case of beer a night (Green 2014). He
then migrated to cocaine, which is also popular among those exhibiting HSS traits, as documented by an
Yeah, coke. I was a heavy user from 1978 until 1986, something like that.‘‗Did you write on
coke?‘‗Oh, yeah, I had to. I mean, coke was different from booze. Booze, I could wait, and I didn‘t drink or
anything. But I used coke all the time.‘(Green 2014).
Talking aboutMisery,he said, Miseryis a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my
number-one fan(Green 2014). As his addiction worsened, consistent with the impulsivity displayed by HSS
individuals, his drug abuse became polymorphous. King ingested anything from analgesics to mouthwash. He
admits, I loved Listerine. I loved NyQuil. You name it (Gross 2000). Another feature of HSS is the preference
for aggressive and arousing music (Nater et al. 2005). King writes to musicplaying at full volume. He shares, I
work to loud music hard-rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns N‘ Roses, and Metallica have always been particular
favourites (King 2014:156). HSS is a highly heritable trait, as shown by genetic studies (Derringer et
al.2010).King‘s father‘s restless wanderings, as evidenced by his extensive travels and the impulsive
abandonment of his family,multiple infidelities and addictions may be expressions of the trait of HSS.
Flow Describing his act of writing, King states,
Once I start work on a project, I don‘t stop, and I don‘t slow down [] Writing is at its best always,
always, always when it is a kind of inspired play [] I like it best when it‘s fresh and almost too hot to
handle. (King 2014: 53)
A phenomenon associated with SS is the state of flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
(1990) describes the flow state as being fully immersed, holding an energized focus, full involvement,
and enjoyment of the moment. In a flow state, a person is hyper-focussed and connected to what they are doing.
He has also termed it the optimal experience that is the holy grail of those who engage in dangerous sports.
King has spoken of the manic pressure of thoughts under which he sometimes writes. Therefore, his thoughts
may be an expression of this mental state. King reports that most of The Running Manwas written during a
period of 72 hours, which for him was a fantastic, white-hot experience (Brockes 2013). He has no
memory of writing Cujo. Arguably, drugs were a factor, as they were in The Tommyknockers, where the
townsfolk swap their souls for the gift of being amoral geniuses: In the spring and summer of 1986, I wrote
The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats
a minute(King 2014: 37).He comments on the flood of words that was Firestarter:
There‘s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides,
and I ought to go back. The book is about 700-pages long, and I‘m thinking, ‗There‘s probably a good 350-page
novel in there.‘(Green 2014).
AboutThe Shining, he says,The book ran itself off in, I would say, four to six weeks [] There was
never any hold on it [] I had no idea what l was going to write (King et al.1989: 74). Many authors utilize the
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 48 |Page
strategy of outlining the plot to structure their creativity. However, the inference that King may be driven by
flow is evidenced by his distaste for outlining. As he articulates, Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction
writers who wish to God they were writing masters‘ theses‘(King 2014: 58).King appears to begin with an
observation of real events or self-imposed what if ? puzzles and then lets the words pour out of his typewriter.
Like Roland the Gunslinger, a character from his The Dark Tower series, he embarks on an ontological journey
of discovery towards an end he cannot foresee. This endeavour is encapsulated in his aphorism:The writer is a
pilgrim (Underwood and Miller 1982: 35). The obsessive nature of his writing state is evidenced by two
anecdotes. On one occasion, his wife discovered him covered in blood, bleeding profusely from an incision
wound after a vasectomy. When she tried to intervene, he told her, Hold on, let me finish this
paragraph! (Rozak 2008: 158). Even when faced with what he calls his greatest fear, the death of his child, the
compulsive nature of his writing state takes precedence. King testifies,
Unless something catastrophic happens, like the house explodes, in which case I would stop. My wife
might say Owen fell down the stairs and broke his neck, and I‘d say, ‗Fine, go take him to the emergency room
and let me finish this page.(King et al. 1989: 75).
Sensation Seeking Creativity and Madness
Whilst there are aspects of his personality and creative process that are consistent with HSS and states
suggestive of flow, it must be noted that King is a highly disciplined workaholic who writes and lives his life to
a strict schedule. Says King, ‗I work about two hours a day, but I work seven days a week. I write six pages a
day, and that's like engraved in stone (King et al 1989: 75). The personality trait of high sensation seeking is
made up of four components (Zuckerman 2007). These are Thrill- and Adventure-seeking(TS), in which there is
adesire to engage in physically risky activities;Experience-seeking (ES) indicating the love for a variety
in sensations of the mind and senses; Disinhibition (DIS), which is a lack of self-control or desire to be out
of control; and finally Boredom susceptibility (BS), that is, the dislike of repetition and lack of stimulation.
The impulsivity associated with HSS is often expressed as recklessness, risky sex, gambling and drugs
(Zuckerman 2005). Except for his drug abuse, King appears to have a low expression of this element, though it
may have been an issue for his father. Regarding the low boredom threshold, Kings states that ‗boredom is an
excellent opportunity to get things done. Thrill seeking (TS) usually manifests as the love of dangerous
activities, such as sky diving and mountain climbing. Whilst eschewing physical risks, King does display the
desire to leap off the cliff of his imagination. In the Dark Tower series, he discards all maps and embarks on
epic journeys that traverse multiple universes that are full of threats and dangers. The trait of experience seeking
(ES) has been shown to be associated with the drive to seek out the novel and the exciting in the spheres of
imagination, fantasy dreams, aesthetics and values. The previous paragraphs have laid out a body of evidence to
show that even from a very early, age despite his fears, he felt impelled to seek out intense challenging
experiences in the dark and dangerous. It becomes possible, therefore, to advance a hypothesis that these two
components, that is,TS and ES, are the subterranean streams that serve as drivers of the diversity of his
creativity. The shaping and channeling of forces by an obsessionally rigid work ethic could be the basis of his
immense productivity
The HSS trait is associated with several adverse psychiatric outcomes. However, King‘s
ferocious commitment to his mother‘s work ethic and the unswerving support of his wife Tabitha have
cradled his creativity, protecting him from a descent into madness. Articulates King,
I was also experiencing a range of nasty emotions, from resentment to anger to occasional outright
hate, even surges of mental violence … I don‘t know what would have happened to my marriage and my sanity
if it hadn‘t been for the totally unexpected news, in 1973, that Doubleday had accepted ‗Carrie. (Norden 1983)
Biographer Tony Magistale recounts,In a conversation, he once told me that it is likely he wouldn‘t be
alive today without Tabby‘s presence in his life(Magistrale 2009:139).These feelings are fictionalized by King
in his novel,The Shining:
And he kept wanting to take it out on Wendy and Danny. His temper was like a vicious animal on a
frayed leash. He had left the house in terror that he might strike them. Had ended up outside a bar, and the only
thing that had kept him from going in was the knowledge that if he did, Wendy would leave him at last and take
Danny with her. He would be dead from the day they left. (King 1977:25)
Anxious Attachment
The human infant is the most vulnerable in nature. Its survival growth and development depends on
nurturing bonds with a caregiver. Adverse childhood experiences interact with genetics to alter the structure and
function of the brain, compromising emotional and cognitive development. Research has delineated four main
patterns of attachment, namely,secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganized (Bretherton 1992). There is evidence
to indicate that secondary to his childhood experiences, King shows the features of anxious attachment. They
find expression in his life and work. There are protective factors such the responsiveness of his mother‘s love
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 49 |Page
and the unconditional support of his wife that have shielded him from many of the deleterious consequences
of this type of attachment.
A critical event in King‘s life occurred at the age of two when his father abruptly abandoned his family.
It left his mother destitute, homeless, saddled with debt and stigmatized as a single mother. It generated in King
an intense existential fear that she too would abandon him, just as his father did. His sense of insecurity was
aggravated by the constant change of domicile, as his mother crisscrossed the country for the next six years,
staying with relatives on both sides of the family until the tensions become intolerable. At a young age he and
his brother were often left alone at home as the mother went out to work to put food on the table. This anxious
existence may have triggered in King the pattern of attachment known as anxious attachment (Bretherton 1992).
People with this style of attachment are characterized by a deep craving for closeness and intimacy, which they
anxiously seek (Hudson andFraley 2017). They crave high levels of approval and responsiveness from their
attachment figure. They are extremely sensitive to the slightest changes in emotions expressed by others
(Fraleyet al. 2016).In emerging adulthood, they tend to exhibit signs of avoidance, emotional dysregulation,
interpersonal difficulties and alcohol problems (Abby et al. 2018). In his teenage years, King was depressed,
angry and addicted to alcohol. He perceived himself and was perceived by others as an outsider, a loner buried
in his books. People with anxious attachment are often plagued by insecurities and prone to depression.
What appears to have partially protected him from his anxieties related to abandonment and satiated
some of his needs is the intensity of his mother‘s devotion. Despite working long, exhausting hours in menial
jobs, she found the time to read to her children and actively nurtured King‘s aspirations to be an author. The
desire for the dark and the impulse to turn his fantasies into fiction, which became his life‘s ambition, he
inherited from his father. Later, he would go on to say, I had no idea of how to live any other life(King 2014:
36).King obsessively pursued this goal from early childhood, spending every available moment in reading and
writing. His self-identification as an author and its subsequent affirmation, first by his mother and then his wife,
may have served to ameliorate the low self-esteem that many people with anxious attachment experience. His
brother David appears to have taken on a parentified role, caring for him and playing publisher to his schoolboy
writings. His mother, instilled in him an unyielding work ethic that provided him with structure through the
years of grinding poverty, rejection and alcoholism.
A pivotal day in King‘s life was when he met Tabitha Spruce, who was to become his muse and
mainstay. She appears to have been able to satisfy his existential hunger, as well as his need for intimacy and
security.She supported him as he struggled to write during the turbulent years of poverty, parenthood, addiction
and inner rage. We are given a glimpse of this in his construction of the character Wendy in The Shining.
Tabitha also executed two pivotal actions that dramatically altered the course of King‘s life. The first was
fishing the manuscript of Carrie out of the trashcan. The second was organising an intervention that stopped him
from going over the tipping point of drug abuse. An author in her own right, she remains his closest critic and is
central to his life.
The enduring effects of childhood adversity are echoed in King‘s life and work. The need to combat the
ghosts of anxious insecurity with fixed constancy has been a feature of his adult life. This is evidenced in the
obsessively scheduled structure of his daily life, the fidelity of his marriage, intensity of the bonds he has built
and nurtured with his children and choice to live in the landscape of his childhood in Maine. Pet Sematary, a
book he found too disturbing to release, can be read as a testament tothe depth of his feelings for his children. In
his works, alcoholic insecure authors abound (e.g., The Shining), children, often with superpowers, battle adults
who are evil (e.g., The Shining, Firestarter), loners hit back at their tormentors (e.g., Carrie) and it is the
strength of individual and group bonds that often carry the day (e.g., Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank
Redemption, The Stand). It has been said,
Stephen King has never gotten over feeling like an abandoned child, and he never stopped being a
child permanently haunted by his father‘s absence. That‘s something that will never change. It has affected his
entire life, from his childhood and his marriage to his books. Especially his books (Rojak 1962: 13).
Narrative Transportation
King has proved himself to be a master at immersing his readers in his narrative world, however
fantastic it may be. Studies (Hakemulder et al. 2017) demonstrate that narratives can focus a viewer‘s perception
and attention on the actions and concerns of characters to such an extent that they can tune out all awareness of
the external environment. This state then serves as an escape from everyday reality, be it humdrum or stressful.
Research (Balint et al. 2017; Bezdek et al. 2015) also highlights that suspense is one of the factors linked
to increased transportation. Suspense arises when potential threats to characters become important to the reader.
It is characterized by a mixture of fear for a negative outcome and hope for a positive resolution (Ortony et
al. 1990). Research on human emotion by Bezdek et al.(2015)indicates that narratives with negative content
and high emotional intensity, as in horror novels, intensify the focus of attention. This serves to heighten
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 50 |Page
suspension of disbelief, making the fictional world appear real to the reader (Gable andHarmon-Jones 2010). As
King puts it,
The horror story makes us children. That‘s the primary function of the horror story to knock away all
of this stuff, all of the bullshit we cover ourselves up with, to take us over taboo lines, to places we aren‘t
supposed to be.(King et al. 1989: 93)
A functional brain imaging study(Nijhof and Willems 2015) has delineated two types of
narrative transportations that constitute the poles of a continuum. Some people are drawn into a story by
mentalising the thoughts and beliefs of the charactersthe mentalising pole. Others, on the other hand, engage
with a novel by becoming enthralled by the action and events in a novel, even simulating itthe action pole.
King‘s comments on two of his early novels written under the pen-name Richard Bachmann, can be seen
as examples of this continuum. The action mode is represented by King‘s assertion that ‗―The Running
Man (is) nothing but a story it moves with the goofy speed of a silent movie, and anything which is not a
story is cheerfully thrown over the side (King 1985:4). The mentalising mode corresponds to his statement
that ‗―The Long Walk andRage are full of windy psychological preachments (both textual and sub-
textual)(King 1985:4). King‘s success may, in part, be attributed to his ability to fill his novels with exciting
action on the one hand and to populate his novels with psychologically complex characters on the other. He,
thus, targets both these pivotal mechanisms in the brain. Taking into account the sex differences in the
enjoyment of horror, found in other studies (Heffner and Levine 2005), it can be hypothesized that there are
two definable groups in the spectrum of King enthusiasts. One group is formed by mainly male readers who
enjoy the action and horror,constituting the action end of the continuum. At the other pole of mentalisation
is the group, possibly mainly comprising women, that can become enthralled by the suspense and story
by empathising with the struggles of the characters. Most of his vast army of readers probably experience a
combination of these patterns of responses.
Theory of Mind
Lisa Zunshine (2006) has postulated that people are predisposed to appreciate works of fiction
that encourage them to speculate about the minds of others becausepeople‘s brains are structured to attribute
goals and intentions to them. She argues that people derive pleasure from the stimulation and satisfaction of
these cognitive cravings through fiction. In research terms, this is a brain function that Simon Baron-Cohen
calls Theory Of Mind (TOM) (Baron-Cohen et al.2013). Often known as mindreading, our ability to
divine the thoughts, emotions and dispositions of others is a fundamental necessity of our social existence.
People with autism spectrum disorders who lack this capacity experience social difficulties. King
conceptualizes TOM as a paranormal power he terms as ‗the shining and makes it the central feature of his
1978 masterpiece. In the novel, he invests Danny and Halloran with a turbocharged version of TOM, enabling
them not only to know the minds of others but also communicate telepathically, even at a distance. King views
the brain function of TOM as what writing is(King 2014:39).He further states that ‗all the arts depend upon
telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation[](King 2014:39).He
compares fiction to a mind reading act, where the author telepathically transmits his thoughts to the mind of
the reader, explaining,‗We‘re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room [] Do we see the
same thing? [] I think we do [] we are together. We‘re close. We‘re having a meeting of the minds(King
The Neurobiology of Narrative
Evolutionary psychologists postulate that the human brain is a narrative-seeking machine, programmed
to seek out and construct stories that shape our identities (Habermas and Bluck 2000). It is a fundamental
component of consciousness, communication and culture. We are born with story-oriented brains into a story-
oriented human culture (Yuan et al. 2018).King has long argued for the primacy of the story. In his foreword to
Night Shift, King contends,All my life as a writer, I have been committed to the idea that in fiction, the story
value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer‘s craft‘(King 1978: 6). Stories can elicit powerful
emotions. A key emotional response to narrative plots is suspense. Suspense appears to be a variant of fear that
mobilizes the brain mechanisms mediating expectation, anticipation and prediction. A brain imaging
study(Lehne et al. 2015) on individual ratings of suspense experienced after reading found suspense to
be associated with the activation of brain structures involved in TOM and predictive inference.The intensity of
the activation has been discovered to be related to the levels of conflict, disturbance or crisis in the contents of
the story. As King puts it, []stories of high conflict‖[is] an arty way of saying suspense stories (King 2014:
82). He further argues, ‗a suspense novel is basically a scare novel []I see the horror novel as only one room
in a very large house, which is the suspense novel (King et al.: 91). Contingent on the reader‘s motivation and
the way the brain evaluates the content, even tales that are tragic or horrific can be read with pleasure (Lewis et
al. 1991).King sees the processes of reader engagement and arousal of their curiosity as necessary
procedures before confronting horror. He says,
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 51 |Page
The trick is to be able to get the reader‘s confidence …I want to be your friend. I want to come up t o
you and put my arm around you and say, ‗Hey, you want to see something? It‘s great! Wait till you see it!
You‘ll really like this thing.‘ Then I get them really interested and lead them up the street and take em around
the corner and into the alley where there‘s this awful thing and keep them there until they‘re screaming!(King et
al. 1989: 4)
The Chemistry Empathy
Paul Zak, in his research based on the story of a child named Ben who is dying of cancer, found that
the narrative elicited two responses, namely,stress and empathy. Stress was mediated by hormones such as
cortisol and noradrenaline, which arouse attention and emotions such as fear and suspense. Empathy was
mediated by the hormone oxytocin, the levels of which paralleled the fluctuating degrees of engagement.
Elucidates Zak,
We also found that the change in oxytocin was associated with concern for the characters in the story.
If you pay attention to the story and become emotionally engaged with the story‘s characters, then it is as if you
have been transported into the story‘s world. This is why your palms sweat when James Bond dodges bullets .
And why you stifle a sniffle when Bambi‘s mother dies (Zak 2015: 5).
The oxytocin release induced by the film subsequently resulted in an increase in acts of altruistic
generosity (Barazza et al. 2015). This suggests that impactful stories can cause more permanent changes in brain
function. As in Zaks‘s research, King echoes the affirmative role that fiction can play in our lives:‗I still see
stories as a great thing, something which not only enhances lives but actually saves them (King 1993:10).Like
Zak, he places a high value on altruistic human bonds. It is the peer bonding of the losersthat defeats
Pennywise the maleficent clown in It. It is the bond between an adult and a child that defeats evil in The Shining
and Salem’s Lot. King buildsbonds between the reader and his characters by inducing projective identification
with their plight. He states,
You must feel that the characters are deep. And I don‘t mean deep in the sense that they have a lot of
deep thoughts. They must have thickness. Do they stand off the page? Then the writer puts them into a position
where they can‘t get out. You don’t get scared of monsters; you get scared for people. ( King et al.1989: 79,
emphasis added)
Conducting the Cognitive Orchestra
An important issue that criticssuch as Harold Bloom fail to acknowledge is the psychological
complexity of King‘s characters and the care with which he communicates their thoughts, feelings and, above
all, motives in language that is authentic, direct and accessible to a mass audience. King eschews the literary
flourishes so loved by the literati and instead focusses on constructing characters in narratives the reader will
care about. In his introduction to Night Shift, he writes,Diligence, word-lust, empathy [and] equal growing
objectivity and then what? Story. Story. Dammit, story! A story is something happening to someone you have
been led to care about (King 1978:4). He engineers identification by casting easily recognized, ordinary,
usually blue-collar characters as his protagonists, painting their physical and psychological lives in a language
rich in cultural references and then taking them into a battle with the dark and draggling horrors on the nightside
of the universe. Jack Torrance in The Shining, for example, is a psychologically astute and clinically accurate
picture of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid alcoholism, secondary to abuse at
the hands of a violent father. King draws on his own experiences to transport his readers into the mind of an
alcoholic by employing the technique of internal dialogue. He is also empathic enough to use the same
technique to paint for the reader a graphic picture of what it is like to live with a disturbed, deteriorating addict
by mapping the thoughts and fears of Jack‘s wife Wendy and son Danny.
A theory known as the Simulation Hypothesis postulates that by utilising mirror neurons, we
represent other people‘s mental states in our own minds (Gallese and Goldman 1998). We do this by
adopting their perspective and tracking or matching their states with resonant states of our own. King
transports us into the minds and worlds of his characters, whether a rabid dog or the epitome of evil. By
doing so, he implants them in our consciousness. He is a master conductor of the brain orchestra that constitutes
the human capacity to empathize.
This paper has aimed to demonstrate that studies of brain function can substantiate Stephen King‘s keen
insights into the nature of human consciousness, as revealed in his fiction. Advances in neuroscience are now
enabling us to better understand these hither to mysterious mechanisms that move us. King‘s creativity is
also haunted by his history. Reflecting his own struggles as well as those of his mother, Ruth, his fiction
contains a heroic arc that affirms the resilience and essential goodness of his protagonists. In nurturing one
another through adversity, just as he, Ruth and Tabitha have done, the protagonists he creates
exemplify the values of
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 52 |Page
perseverance, courage and altruism. In making the reader vulnerable and invested in the struggles of other
characters, he activates critical brain mechanisms. He, thus, alters our brains structurally and chemically in ways
that make us more human and socially caring. As Andre Dubois puts it, Writing is a sustained act of empathy.
[1]. Allen, M (1979), Interview: The Man Who Writes Nightmares. Yankee, 29September, 2016, pp.,
[2]. Balint, K., et al. (2017). The effect of suspense structure on felt suspense and narrative absorption in literature and
film: pp. 177198.
[3]. Barraza, J. A., Alexander, V., Beavin, L. E., Terris, E. T.,and Zak, P. J. (2015),‗The heart of the story: Peripheral
physiology during narrative exposure predicts charitable giving‘,Biol Psychol, 105, pp. 13843.
[4]. Beahm, George (1991), The Stephen King Story, Kansas City: Andrews and MacMeel.
[5]. Beahm, George (2015),The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror, Thomas
Dunne Book.
[6]. Bezdek, M. A., Gerrig, R. J., Wenzel, W. G., Shin, J., Pirog Revill, K. and Schumacher, E. H. (2015),‗Neural
evidence that suspense narrows attentional focus‘,Neuroscience, 303, pp. 33845.
[7]. Blankstein, K. R. (1976),Sensation seeking and vividness of imagery, Unpublished Manuscript, reported in
Zuckerman, M. (1979),‗Sensation seeking and risk taking‘,in C. E. Izard (ed.), Emotions in personality and
psychopathology. New York: Plenum.
[8]. Bowlby, J. (1977), The making and breaking of affectional bonds. I. Aetiology and psychopathology in the light of
attachment theory,‘an expanded version of the Fiftieth Maudsley Lecture delivered before the Royal College of
Psychiatrists, 19 November, Br J Psychiatry, 130, pp. 20110.
[9]. Bretherton, I. (1992),‗The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth‘,Developmental
Psychology, 28:5,pp. 759775, doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759.
[10]. King, Stephen, interviewed by Brockes, E.(2013),Stephen King: on alcoholism and returning to the Shining,
[11]. Cantor, J. (2004),‗―I‘ll Never Have a Clown in My House‖— Why Movie Horror Lives On‘,Poetics Today, 25:2,
Summer 2004,
[12]. ________ (2006),‗Long-Term Memories of Frightening Media Often Include Lingering Trauma
Symptoms,‘Association for Psychological Science Convention,New York, 26May,
[13]. Castellà, J., Boned, J., Méndez-Ulrich, J. L. and Sanz, A.(2020),‗Jump and free fall! Memory, attention, and
decision-making processes in an extreme sport‘,Cognition and Emotion, 34, pp. 262272.
[14]. Chris Fraley, R., et al. (2006),‗Adult attachment and the perception of emotional expressions: Probing the
hyperactivating strategies underlying anxious attachment‘,Journal of Personality,74:4,pp. 11631190.
[15]. Cisler, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Lohr, J. M., and Williams, N. L. (2009),‗Attentional bias differences between fear and
disgust: Implications for the role of disgust in disgust-related anxiety disorders‘,Cognition and Emotion, 23:4, pp.
675687, doi:10.1080/02699930802051599.
[16]. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990),Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row.
[17]. Derringer J, Krueger RF, Dick DM, et al. (2010),‗Predicting sensation seeking from dopamine genes. A candidate-
system approach‘,Psychol Sci, 21:9, pp. 12821290, doi:10.1177/0956797610380699.
[18]. Donohew, R. L., Hoyle, R. H., Clayton, R. R., Skinner, W. F., Colon, S. E. & Rice, R. E.(1999),‗Sensation seeking
and drug use by adolescents and their friends: Models for marijuana and alcohol, J Stud Alcohol, 60, pp. 62231.
[19]. Hakemulder, Frank and Kuijpers, M., Tan (eds.) ( 2017),Narrative Absorption, John Benjamins Publishing
[20]. Gallese, V. and A. Goldman (1998),‗Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading‘,Trends Cogn Sci,
2:12,pp. 493501.
[21]. King, Stephen, interviewed by Green, A (2014),The Rolling Stone Interview, Rolling Stone Issue 1221, 6November,
[22]. King, Stephen, interviewed by Gross, T. (2000),Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories, 2 July, Fresh
[23]. Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C. D. and Singer, T. (2010),‗Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup
members' suffering predict individual differences in costly helping‘,Neuron, 68, pp. 14960.
[24]. Hennig, J., Laschefski, U.andOpper, C.(1994),‗Biopsychological changes after bungee jumping: Beta-endorphin
immunoreactivity as a mediator of euphoria?‘,Neuropsychobiology, 29, pp. 2832.
[25]. Hoffner C. A. and Levine K. J. (2005),‗Enjoyment of mediated fright and violence: A meta-analysis‘,Media Psychol,
7, pp. 207237, 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0702_5.
[26]. Hudson, M., Seppala, K., Putkinen, V., Sun, L., Glerean, E., Karjalainen, T., Karlsson, H. K., Hirvonen, J. and
Nummenmaa, L. (2020),‗Dissociable neural systems for unconditioned acute and sustained fear‘,Neuroimage,
[27]. Jaffe, L. T. and Archer, R. P. (1987),‗The prediction of drug use among college students from MMPI, MCMI, and
sensation seeking scales‘,J Pers Assess, 51, 243245.
[28]. King, S. (1977),The Shining,New York: Doubleday.
[29]. ________ (1978),Night Shift, New York: Doubleday.
[30]. ________(1993),Nightmares and Dreamscapes, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
The Divine Madness of Stephen King: A Neurocognitive Examination
DOI: 10.9790/0837-2509084453 53 |Page
[31]. ________ (2010),Danse Macabre, New York: Gallery.
[32]. ________. (2014),On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, New York: Scribner Classics.
[33]. ________. (2018),From a Buick 8: A novel, New York: Gallery Books.
[34]. King, S. and R. Bachman (1985),The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels, New York, New American Library.
[35]. King, S., Underwood, T. and Miller, C. (1989),Bare bBnes: Conversations on Terror With Stephen King, New York:
Warner Books.
[36]. Klucken, T., Schweckendiek, J., Koppe, G., Merz, C.J., Kagerer, S., Walter, B., et al. (2012), ‗Neural correlates of
disgust- and fear-conditioned responses‘, Neuroscience,201, pp. 20918.
[37]. LeDoux JE (1994),‗Emotion, memory and the brain‘,Sci Am, 270:, pp. 5057.
[38]. Lehne, M., Engel, P., Rohrmeier, M., Menninghaus, W., Jacobs, A. M. and Koelsch, S. (2015),Reading a
suspenseful literary text activates brain areas related to social cognition and predictive inference‘,PloS one, 10:5,
[39]. Lewis, P. A., Critchley, H. D., Rotshtein, P. and Dolan, R. J. (2007),‗Neural correlates of processing valence and
arousal in affective words, Cerebral cortex, 17:3, pp. 742748,
[40]. Luo, R., Uematsu, A., Weitemier, A. et al. (2018), ‗A dopaminergic switch for fear to safety transitions‘,Nat
Commun, 9, 2483,
[41]. Magistrale, T. (2009),Stephen King: America's Storyteller, Praeger.
[42]. Morales, A.C., Wu, E.C. and Fitzsimons, G J. (2012), How Disgust Enhances the Effectiveness of Fear
Appeals‘,Journal of Marketing Research, XLIX,pp. 383393.
[43]. Nater, U., Krebs, M. and Ehlert, U. (2005),Sensation Seeking, Music Preference, and Psychophysiological
Reactivity to Music‘,Musicae Scientiae, 9, pp. 239254.
[44]. Nijhof, A. D. and Willems, R.M. (2015),‗Simulating Fiction: Individual Differences in Literature Comprehension
Revealed with fMRI‘,Plos One,11February,
[45]. King, Stephen, interviewed by Norden, E.(1983),The Playboy Interview, pp. 427441,
[46]. Olsson, A. and Phelps, E.A. (2007),‗Social learning of fear‘,Nature Neuroscience, 10:9,pp. 1095102,
doi:10.1038/nn1968. PMID 17726475.
[47]. Ortony, A, Clore, G and Collins, A (1990),The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University
[48]. Rao, P. V. K. (1978), Mental imagery and sensation seeking, Unpublished manuscript, reported in Zuckerman, M.
(1979),‗Sensation seeking and risk taking‘,in C. E. Izard (Ed.), Emotions in personality and psychopathology, New
York: Plenum.
[49]. Rogak, L.(2008),Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, New York: St. Martin's/Dunne.
[50]. Rozin, P., Haidt, J., and McCauley, C.R. (1993),‗Disgust‘,in M. Lewis and J. Haviland (eds.), Handbook of
Emotions, New York: Guilford,pp. 575594.
[51]. Sanfey, A. G., Rilling, J. K., Aronson, J. A., Nystrom, L. E. and Cohen, J. D. (2003),‗The neural basis of economic
decision-making in the Ultimatum Game‘,Science, 300, pp. 17558.
[52]. Schultz, D. and Schultz, S. (2016),Theories of Personality, Wadsworth Publishing.
[53]. Baron-Cohen,Simon, Tager-Flusberg,Helen and Lombardo,Michael (eds.) (2013),Understanding other minds:
Perspectives from developmental social neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[54]. Smith, T. (1989), Conversation recorded on October 22, 1989 and originally aired on the Public Radio Book
[55]. Staniloiu, A., Markowitsch, H. J. and Kordon, A. (2018),‗Psychological causes of autobiographical amnesia: A study
of 28 cases, Neuropsychologia, 110, pp. 134147.
[56]. Underwood, V. and Miller, C. (1982),Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King, New York: Signet Books.
[57]. Van Hooff, J. C., Devue, C., Vieweg, P. E. and Theeuwes, J.(2013),‗Disgust- and not fear-evoking images hold our
attention‘,Acta Psychol, 143, pp. 16.
[58]. Woolfe, S. (2018), Facing Your Fear Raises Your Self-Esteem,
esteem. Accessed 7 May, 2020.
[59]. Zak, P. J.(2015),‗Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative,‘Cerebrum, 2.
[60]. Zuckerman, M. (2005),‗The Neurobiology of Impulsive Sensation Seeking: Genetics, Brain Physiology,
Biochemistry, and Neurology‘,in C. Stough (ed.),Neurobiology of Exceptionality,Boston, MA: Springer.
[61]. ________ (2007), Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior, Washington D.C: American Psychological Association.
[62]. Zuckerman, M., and Litle, P. (1986),‗Personality and curiosity about morbid and sexual events‘,Personality and
Individual Differences, 7:1, pp. 4956,
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Fear protects organisms by increasing vigilance and preparedness, and by coordinating survival responses during life-threatening encounters. The fear circuit must thus operate on multiple timescales ranging from preparatory sustained alertness to acute fight-or-flight responses. Here we studied the brain basis of sustained and acute fear using naturalistic functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enabling analysis of different time-scales of fear responses. Subjects (N = 37) watched feature-length horror movies while their hemodynamic brain activity was measured with fMRI. Time-variable intersubject correlation (ISC) was used to quantify the reliability of brain activity across participants, and seed-based phase synchronization was used for characterizing dynamic connectivity. Subjective ratings of fear were used to assess how synchronization and functional connectivity varied with emotional intensity. These data suggest that acute and sustained fear are supported by distinct neural pathways, with sustained fear amplifying mainly sensory responses, and acute fear increasing activity in brainstem, thalamus, amygdala and cingulate cortices. Sustained fear increased ISC in regions associated with acute fear, and also amplified functional connectivity within this network. The results were replicated in an independent experiment with a different subject sample and stimulus movie. The functional interplay between cortical networks involved in sustained anticipation of, and acute response to, threat involves a complex and dynamic interaction that depends on the proximity of threat, and the need to employ threat appraisals and vigilance for decision making and response selection.
Full-text available
In the present study, we explored the effects of high arousal on cognitive performance when facing a situation of risk. We also investigated how these effects are moderated by either positive or negative emotional states (valence). An ecological methodology was employed, and a field study was carried out in a real-life situation with 39 volunteer participants performing a bungee jumping activity and a control group of 39 participants. Arousal and valence were assessed with the Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM). Working memory capacity (reverse digit span), selective attention (Go/No-Go task) and decision-making (Iowa Gambling Task) were assessed at 3 time points: 30 min before the jump, immediately after the jump, and approximately 8 min after the onset of the previous phase. The results indicate that high arousal accompanied by high positive valence scores after jumping either improved performance or led to a lack of impairment in certain cognitive tasks. The Processing-Efficiency and the Broaden-and-Build theories are put forward to explain emotional moderation of cognitive performance in potentially life-threatening situations.
Full-text available
The present study was to further the understanding of the conceptual relationship between narrative absorption, that is the intense engagement with a story world, and felt suspense, that is the anticipation of a narrative outcome event. To this end, a media comparative online experiment was conducted with a 2 (Media format: film vs. literature) × 2 (Suspense structure: diegetic vs. non-diegetic delay) × 2 (Stories) between subject design. Results revealed a complex relationship among felt suspense, attention, emotional engagement, and transportation, showing the high importance of attention in felt suspense, and the moderating effect of media format and gender. Findings indicate that non-diegetic suspense delay unlike diegetic suspense decreases felt suspense and narrative absorption independently of media format.
Full-text available
Overcoming aversive emotional memories requires neural systems that detect when fear responses are no longer appropriate so that they can be extinguished. The midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine system has been implicated in reward and more broadly in signaling when a better-than-expected outcome has occurred. This suggests that it may be important in guiding fear to safety transitions. We report that when an expected aversive outcome does not occur, activity in midbrain dopamine neurons is necessary to extinguish behavioral fear responses and engage molecular signaling events in extinction learning circuits. Furthermore, a specific dopamine projection to the nucleus accumbens medial shell is partially responsible for this effect. In contrast, a separate dopamine projection to the medial prefrontal cortex opposes extinction learning. This demonstrates a novel function for the canonical VTA-dopamine reward system and reveals opposing behavioral roles for different dopamine neuron projections in fear extinction learning.
Full-text available
Stories can elicit powerful emotions. A key emotional response to narrative plots (e.g., novels, movies, etc.) is suspense. Suspense appears to build on basic aspects of human cognition such as processes of expectation, anticipation, and prediction. However, the neural processes underlying emotional experiences of suspense have not been previously investigated. We acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants read a suspenseful literary text (E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman") subdivided into short text passages. Individual ratings of experienced suspense obtained after each text passage were found to be related to activation in the medial frontal cortex, bilateral frontal regions (along the inferior frontal sulcus), lateral premotor cortex, as well as posterior temporal and temporo-parietal areas. The results indicate that the emotional experience of suspense depends on brain areas associated with social cognition and predictive inference.
Full-text available
When we read literary fiction, we are transported to fictional places, and we feel and think along with the characters. Despite the importance of narrative in adult life and during development, the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying fiction comprehension are unclear. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how individuals differently employ neural networks important for understanding others' beliefs and intentions (mentalizing), and for sensori-motor simulation while listening to excerpts from literary novels. Localizer tasks were used to localize both the cortical motor network and the mentalizing network in participants after they listened to excerpts from literary novels. Results show that participants who had high activation in anterior medial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC; part of the mentalizing network) when listening to mentalizing content of literary fiction, had lower motor cortex activity when they listened to action-related content of the story, and vice versa. This qualifies how people differ in their engagement with fiction: some people are mostly drawn into a story by mentalizing about the thoughts and beliefs of others, whereas others engage in literature by simulating more concrete events such as actions. This study provides on-line neural evidence for the existence of qualitatively different styles of moving into literary worlds, and adds to a growing body of literature showing the potential to study narrative comprehension with neuroimaging methods.
Full-text available
In this meta-analysis, we synthesized data from published journal articles that investigated viewers' enjoyment of fright and violence. Given the limited research on this topic, this analysis was primarily a way of summarizing the current state of knowledge and developing directions for future research. The studies selected (a) examined frightening or violent media content; (b) used self-report measures of enjoyment or preference for such content (the dependent variable); and (c) included independent variables that were given theoretical consideration in the literature. The independent variables examined were negative affect and arousal during viewing, empathy, sensation seeking, aggressiveness, and the respondents' gender and age. The analysis confirmed that male viewers, individuals lower in empathy, and those higher in sensation seeking and aggressiveness reported more enjoyment of fright and violence. Some support emerged for Zillmann's (1980, 1996) model of suspense enjoyment. Overall, the results demonstrate the importance of considering how viewers interpret or appraise their reactions to fright and violence. However, the studies were so diverse in design and measurement methods that it was difficult to identify the underlying processes. Suggestions are proposed for future research that will move toward the integration of separate lines of inquiry in a unified approach to understanding entertainment.
Autobiographical amnesia is found in patients with focal or diffuse brain damage ("organic amnesia"), but also without overt brain damage (at least when measured with conventional brain imaging methods). This last condition is usually named dissociative amnesia at present, and was originally described as hysteria. Classically and traditionally, dissociative amnesia is seen as a disorder that causes retrograde amnesia in the autobiographical domain in the aftermath of incidents of major psychological stress or trauma. In the present study one of the probably largest published collections of patients (28) with psychogenically caused autobiographical amnesia, who were assessed with comprehensive neuropsychological tests, will be described and documented in order to identify variables which are central for the occurrence of dissociative amnesia. The presented cases demonstrate that autobiographical amnesia without direct brain damage can have very mixed clinical presentations, causes and consequences. The described cases of psychogenic amnesia are clustered according to a number of manifestations and features, which include a reduced effort to perform cognitively at a normal level, a forensic background, anterograde (instead of retrograde) autobiographical amnesia, the fugue condition, concurrent somatic diseases, and their appearance in childhood and youth. It is concluded that autobiographical amnesia of a psychogenic origin may occur within a variety of symptom pictures. For all patients, it probably serves a protective function by offering them a mechanism to exit a life situation which appears to them unmanageable or adverse.
The personality construct “sensation seeking” (SS), as defined by Zuckerman, can be used as an explanation for behavioural phenomena that are widespread but little understood, such as the preference for arousing music styles. Embedded in a psychobiological theory of personality, SS is closely related to a number of biological variables. We hypothesized that participants with high levels of SS would prefer aggressive and arousing music to peaceful and relaxing music and would show attenuated psychophysiological reactivity to aggressive and arousing music. Fifty-three healthy participants (age: M = 26.5, SD = 4.04; 26 male, 27 female) took part in the study. SS was assessed using the German version of the Sensation Seeking Scale V (SSS V). Heart rate, electrodermal activity, skin temperature, and pulse volume amplitude were measured throughout the course of the whole study. After a baseline period, two musical stimuli that were carefully selected and rated in a pre-study as peaceful and relaxing (Renaissance music = RM) vs. aggressive and arousing (heavy metal = HM), respectively, were presented on two different days via headphones for 10 minutes in a randomized order. Participants with high SS scores felt significantly Jess activated after HM than participants with low scores. Although there was a significant effect of music (RM vs. HM) on psychophysiological reactions, SS did not influence this relationship. We therefore conclude that SS seems to be associated with the psychological experience of aggressive and arousing music, but has no physiological correlate.