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Journal Article

Talking about social conflict in the MRI scanner: Neural correlates of being empathized with


Menninghaus,  Winfried       
Department of Language and Literature, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
Cluster of Excellence “Languages of Emotion”, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany;

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Seehausen, M., Kazzer, P., Bajbouj, M., Heekeren, H., Jacobs, A. M., Klann-Delius, G., et al. (2014). Talking about social conflict in the MRI scanner: Neural correlates of being empathized with. NeuroImage: Clinical, 84(0), 951-961. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.09.056.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0023-DA08-0
This article investigates an age-old, puzzling question: how can a negatively valenced emotion such as sadness go together with aesthetic liking and even pleasure? We propose that an answer to this question must take into account the feeling of being moved, a complex emotional state that plays a major role in the history of poetics and aesthetics and has recently begun to attract interest in psychological research. We conducted a study in an actual cinema using film clips as sadness-eliciting stimuli. In total, 76 participants watched 38 clips that presented variations of the same sad scenario: a character or a group of characters learns about the death of a close person. The study revealed a highly significant positive correlation between sadness and enjoyment. However, this correlation was almost fully mediated by the feeling of being moved. Hence sadness primarily functions as a contributor to and intensifier of the emotional state of being moved. Furthermore, the study revealed that being moved is a positive term in two senses. First, it refers to an overall positive feeling. Second, it indicates a positive value judgment regarding the power of a film to elicit such feelings. Therefore, we conclude that it is the overall positive feeling of being moved itself that recipients of sad films and other forms of art enjoy—we simply like to be moved. Taken together, our findings are significant for investigations of the so-called ‘sad-film paradox’ and the aesthetic pleasure associated with negative emotions more generally.