The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: A Neuro-Psychoanalytic View

by Norman N. Holland

January 22, 2003


One can subdivide the phenomenon Coleridge described into three inhibitions: 1) no awareness of one's body; 2) no awareness of what surrounds the literary work; and 3) no reality testing, plus one disinhibition: we feel toward what is represented as though it were really happening. Ego-psychology explained the phenomenon as a regression to orality and mother-infant fusion (Holland 1968). We can now add a neurological explanation. Although more complicated, it may provide a clue to the nature of what psychoanalysis calls regression.


Author's Note: this is a transcription of my presentation at the 19th International Literature and Psychology Conference in Arezzo, June 28, 2002. Because it was originally oral, the documentation is minimal.


    Coleridge invented the term. In 1798 he and Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads, which literary historians take to be the opening salvo in the British Romantic movement. Coleridge commented that Wordsworth was publishing realistic poems about ordinary people, but he, Coleridge, was writing more fantastic things: "Kubla Khan," "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," or "Christabel." He asked from his readers "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith" (Coleridge ch. xiv). Momentarily, for brief periods, we are not to disbelieve the improbabilities we will read, and that un-disbelief constitutes a kind of imaginative or empathic belief.

    Coleridge's term has stuck, probably because it describes what we feel is happening in a lot of situations Coleridge could never have imagined. When we see Spider-Man firing his webs and swinging himself over skyscrapers, we respond with "Uh-huh, yes, ok, what's next?" When we see The Terminator melt into a pool of mercury and then re-constitute himself, we don't say, that's not possible. We hunger for what's coming next. Why?

    As I see the problem, we can divide it into four parts. When we suspend disbelief in a literary text,

  1. we no longer perceive our bodies;
  2. we no longer perceive our environment;
  3. we no longer judge probability or reality-test;
  4. we respond emotionally to the fiction as though it were real.
That last is, to me, the most puzzling of the four.

    Do you remember that fine old tearjerker from 1970, Love Story? As it happens, I saw that film in Panama City, Florida, a town that describes itself as the capital of the Redneck Riviera. It was in a small movie theater on the main street that ordinarily showed only John Wayne movies, but Love Story was immensely popular. I had to pick my way through motorcycles to get into the theater. And there I was, with my Ph.D. in English Literature, surrounded by rednecks and hillbillies and bikers, all of us watching Jenny Cavalieri, Radcliffe girl, who has just married the rich Harvard boy, as she dies of leukemia. And the tears are running down our cheeks, the rednecks and the Ph.D., all of us. Why? What do any of us care about Jenny Cavalieri, fictional college girl?

    Back in 1968, I offered a psychoanalytic explanation of the phenomenon, one that I think still holds good (Holland ch. 3). I asked a variety of people how they felt when they were engrossed in an "entertainment," book, movie, or play. They said they were "rapt," "absorbed," "[in] motion with the work." "I lose track of time." "A feeling of joyful unreality." "I am gathered up, carried along, and unaware of being a reader, viewer, etc." "I am . . . unaware of surroundings except those in the book or show." "Total anesthesia."

    I took their phrasings to describe a regression to the stage in infancy when, according to psychoanalytic theory, the child feels the boundaries between itself and mother as blurred, uncertain, and permeable. Here, these readers and spectators did not feel separate from the movie or book that was giving them satisfaction. We could say they were perceiving the book or play or movie in a Winnicottian potential space (Schwartz).

    I also noticed how they used what a psychoanalyst would call "oral" imagery when they described the experience. They would "take in" a movie, or a certain book was a "treat," "delicious." A comedy would be a "piece of cake." In classic texts like the Book of Common Prayer or Bacon's Essays, we find frequent references to books that are to be "digested." Oral imagery fits the regression to an undifferentiated union of mother and child.

    That explanation I put forward in 1968. In 2002 I would like to add what neurology can tell us about the four aspects of the phenomenon: body neglect; neglect of surroundings; ceasing to reality-check; responding with real emotions to unreal situations.

    Neurology offers an easy explanation for body neglect: habituation. Think about your shoes. You put your shoes on in the morning and for a few seconds you are aware of them. You can feel them on your feet. After a few seconds, you cease to be aware of them, and you don't become aware of your shoes again until you take them off at night--unless you get a blister or a pebble.

    This is what's happening. When you put your shoes on, they are a novel stimulus, and the neurons that carry information about the state of your feet up your spinal cord start firing rapidly: `Something new is happening down here.' But as the stimulus continues unchanged, the neurons slow down to their normal firing rate, and no new information goes up to the brain. You simply become unaware of your shoes unless and until something new happens.

    In the same way, when you sit in your armchair reading or in a theater seat watching, your body is giving you no new signals. All the novel stimuli are coming from the page or stage or screen in front of you. You therefore pay attention to the literary work, and you cease to be aware of your body.

    But I think that explanation is a bit too simple. I think something more complicated and pervasive is going on, something that comes from our basic stance toward the arts. We don't act as a result of art. Kant called it "disinterestedness," and the term Interesselosigkeit has passed into the lexicon of German aesthetics (Kant Part I, bk 1.2). We don't plan to do anything in the world as a result of what we are reading or watching. We may cry or laugh in response to what we are reading or watching, but we don't plan to act on the world outside the work of art. And that takes us to the basic purpose of a brain.

    Why do we have brains at all? Some animals like polyps and sponges and indeed the whole plant kingdom get along fine without brains. What are brains for? Brains serve one overarching purpose. A brain serves to move a body (Kalat 224).

    We can think of our human brains as divided into fore and aft along the central sulcus, a groove running from just in front of one ear across the top of our heads to the other ear. The back part of the brain, by and large, is devoted to collecting sensory information and integrating it into a three-dimensional motion picture of the world, complete with sound and feel. The occipital lobe at the back of our heads processes vision. The parietal lobe at the top of our heads, just behind the central sulcus and in front of the occipital lobe, processes tactile and motor information. The temporal lobe alongside our temples deals with auditory information.

    In front of the central sulcus, we have the parts of our brains devoted to moving the body, and the further forward we go, the more complex the planning. The parts closest to the central sulcus deal directly with movements, the parts forward from there deal with increasingly more abstract planning of movements. These frontal parts of the brain reach back, as it were, or filter the sensory information from the posterior half of the brain to pull forward only the information relevant to movement. There are key points in the systems of the brain where all this irrelevant information might be refused passage: the posterior superior parietal lobe or the posterior thalamic nuclei. That neglected sensory information remains unused and unconscious, called up only if it is relevant to movement.

    Now what is happening as we are absorbed in a movie or play or book? We are not planning to move. As soon as we do plan to move, to get up and fetch a glass of wine or to find the buttery part of the popcorn or turn to our neighbor, we lose our concentration. We are no longer at one with the book or drama, we are no longer rapt, absorbed, taken in--however you choose to phrase it. We have broken the willing suspension of disbelief.

    Our not acting, then, will explain the first two of the four aspects of Coleridge's phenomenon, neglect of one's body and neglect of the environment. It will also explain the third, the failure to check on realism and probability. Reality-testing, it turns out, is also related to planning movement and action.

    To intend to act, to plan a movement, we imagine the outcome. If I plan to move that glass of water on the table, I have to imagine where it is going to be after I have moved it. I have to imagine what is not now true--a contrafactual. I understand where the glass now is--the reality of the glass--by noting where it is not. Having moved the glass, I know where it is by remembering where it was, again something no longer the fact. We test reality by relating to it, by planning to move within it. And to move, we have to imagine a future and a past for an object, neither of which is true now. We test reality by imagining contrafactuals (Knight and Grabowecky 1358-59). And as long as we do not plan to move while reading a book or watching a play or movie, we do not test the reality of what we are perceiving. Thus, we willingly suspend disbelief. The minute we do plan to move, we, as we say, break the spell. We are no longer rapt and absorbed. We restore what we are watching or reading to the real world in which we reality-test.

     We come then to the fourth aspect of the willing suspension of disbelief, to me the most puzzling of all. Why do we feel real an emotion toward what we know perfectly well is a fiction? Why do I cry for Jenny Cavalieri's imaginary death?

    Emotions are a difficult problem for the neuroscientist. No one has quite settled on the relation between the physical signs of emotion and the conscious feeling associated with those physical signs. There is the quickened pulse and rise in temperature physically associated with anger and there is the psychological feeling of rage. There are the tears I outwardly shed for Ms. Cavalieri, and there is the inner feeling I have of sadness, grief, a feeling like that I would feel at a real loss. But what the relation is between the physical emotion and the mental feeling no one can say for sure.

    There is also no general agreement on what are the basic emotions. Some say there are five, some say eight, and so on. Perhaps the one thing everyone would agree on is that there are two broad categories of emotion, and they are tied, like reality-testing, to action. There are emotions that make us want to approach an object, like lust or rage, and there are emotions that make us want to avoid an object, like fear or disgust. But beyond that simple classification, there is uncertainty.

    But we can say one thing for sure. Our emotions arise in the limbic system and from there, by means of corticolimbic projections, influence and modulate our thinking and planning of actions in the prefrontal cortex.

    To think about emotions toward fictions, this fourth and most puzzling aspect of the willing suspension of disbelief, we can draw on an idea put forward by Paul MacLean in the 1970s. While today neurologists would not regard MacLean's idea as either totally accurate or totally acceptable, it gives us a starting-point for thinking about the emotional part of the willing suspension of disbelief. He argued that we have a "triune brain." Our human brains consist of three evolutionarily earlier brains connected together.

    The earliest of these brains is the reptilian. Think about lizards. Every time I step out the front door of my house in Florida, a lot of little lizards scurry away. These little fellows are only a couple of inches long, yet they are doing very well in the game of life. In terms of the famous four Fs of the medical students, they are feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexually reproducing. They do all four with a brain little bigger than the head of a match. In us, the part of the brain that manages these basic functions is our brain stem, about the size of your thumb, running up your spinal cord into the center of the brain. It manages things like body temperature, blood pressure, some basic patterns of movement, and some basic synthesis of sensory information.

    Now what is added to this when the lizards (or dinosaurs, really) evolve into mammals? Live birth. Lizards just lay eggs and walk away, but mammals give birth to live infants and suckle them, and thus is born an emotional relationship. Mammals--the mammalian brain--feels emotions like fear and rage and lust and perhaps sadness, as when you have seen a dog or a cat miss its young. The mammalian brain also allows for play, as you can see in the nature movies on public television of, say, lion cubs at play. They rough each other up, jumping onto one another and tumbling over one another, pretending to bite, but not biting so as to hurt each other. They can pretend and surely pretending is the beginning of literature. The mammalian brain occurs in us (approximately!) as the limbic system, a series of nuclei and other structures at the top of the brain stem, and this limbic system plays a central role in giving us emotions.

    And what happens in the third of our three brains, the primate or neo-mammalian brain? It relies now on sight more than on smell. Otherwise, it differs from the earlier brains only in degree rather than kind. Evolutionarily, there has been a great expansion of the so-called association areas, the parts of the brain between the primary areas behind the central sulcus for sensory information and the frontal areas for motion. In humans, a physical spread evolved between areas involved in the immediate perception of a stimulus and the response. In other words, we primates gained a more complex picture of the world, and primates are capable of inhibiting our response and can planning more complexly for action. Primates can understand and manipulate not only tools but the complex social groupings we see among troupes of chimpanzees and gorillas.

    The human brain differs from the brains of the other primates in one thing only: language. We evolved the language centers without which we would not have literature. But for understanding the willing suspension of disbelief, what matters is the great expansion of the prefrontal cortex, evolutionarily the last part of our brains to develop, the part just above our eyebrows and up into our foreheads. I weigh about as much as an orang-utan, but I have five times the amount of prefrontal cortex. It is in that region that we do our most complex planning, and most importantly, it is there that we inhibit actions. When we say we do not act in reaction to works of art, when we demonstrate Kant's Interesselosigkeit, it is our prefrontal cortex that is shutting down our propensity to act and with it our awareness of body and environment and our testing of reality.

    But what is not shut down are those earlier reptilian and mammalian brains, that limbic system, which is generating emotions. In short, we can feel real emotions toward unreal fictions, because two different brain systems are at work. One, the prefrontal cortex's inhibiting system is at work because we know we are not supposed to act in response to the fiction we are reading or the drama we are watching. We therefore cease to test reality and we do not disbelieve the fiction. But our corticolimbic system remains at work, and through it we feel the emotions we would ordinarily feel at the human situations we are watching, at, say, Jenny Cavalieri's love and death. "Fictional worlds," write Tooby and Cosmides (p. 8), "engage emotion systems while disengaging action systems." We experience this astonishing phenomenon of real emotions toward fictional people and situations.

    Q.E.D., I am tempted to say. We have arrived at a neurological explanation of the psychological phenomenon Coleridge posited. But I would like to go one step further, toward a neuro-psychoanalytic explanation. This is, for me, the liveliest area in psychoanalysis today, the effort to combine psychoanalytic theory with the neurological discoveries of, especially, the last thirty years or so. This is a movement represented, for example, by the new journal now in its third year, Neuro-Psychoanalysis.

    Although we were looking only at the specifically aesthetic question of the suspension of disbelief, we have arrived, I think, at a neuro-psychoanalytic explanation of what the psychoanalysts call regression. In psychoanalytic terms, Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief is a regression to an oral merger of infant and nurturing other in a potential space. In neurological terms, we could say that regression means shutting down some "higher" system that modulates "lower" systems. In the case of the willing suspension of disbelief, the prefrontal cortex inhibits action and the planning of actions so that we no longer are aware of the unreality of the fictions we are dealing with, but it does not--cannot--inhibit the corticolimbic systems that give rise to our emotions. They run freely on, busily prompting us to actions, to approaches and avoidances, we never perform, but the psychological feelings and the physical signs of emotion persist. I cry and my fellow-spectators , the bikers and rednecks, cry for Jenny Cavalieri.

    It is accurate to speak of this as a regression. Regression in the psychoanalytic sense involves two things: a return to an earlier time in development and the re-using of a more primitive mode of functioning. The willing suspension of disbelief takes us back to a time when our limbic systems had begun to function, infancy, but our prefrontal cortices had not--they do not fully develop until we are about twenty-five (which is why teenagers are the way they are). And we adopt a more primitive mode of functioning, emoting without regard to the realities.

    So too the oral imagery is appropriate. We believe now that the first emotional regulatory systems, those that regulate the positive emotions of joy and elation, arise from the infant's experiences of separation and reunion with mother, which surely occur around feeding (Schore).

    I have one final point to make. Coleridge innocently pointed to a purely literary phenomenon, but that same phenomenon instances what most of us would agree is the profoundest threat to our human species. We humans have these wonderful primate brains, these prefrontal cortices, that enable us to devise comedies and concertos and computers and all the wonderful things of our human environment. These same prefrontal cortices enable us to devise nuclear arms and bioweapons and terrorist attacks. And how do we decide whether or not to use these things? What tells us what feels right, what feels good and desirable? Our emotions. We are trying to decide on the actions our primate brains make us capable of with emotions that come from the parts of our brains we share with lions and sheep and cats and dogs.

    As Coleridge recognized, you or I sit in a movie and idly believe in Spider-Man's gymnastics, or we cry for Jenny Cavalieri. We feel the agonies of Hamlet, or we share the sexual joy of Molly Bloom's "Yes I said yes I will Yes." Every time we do this, every time we lose ourselves in the wonders of literature, every time we demonstrate the phenomenon Coleridge pointed to, we are enacting the tragic predicament that will determine whether our species can survive--or not. Think about it--with that prefrontal cortex.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 2 vols. Ed. J. Shawcross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.

Holland, Norman N. The Dynamics of Literary Response. 1st ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.

Kalat, James W. Biological Psychology. Belmont CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. 1790.

Knight, Robert T. and Marcia Grabowecky. "Escape from Linear Time: Prefrontal Cortex and Conscious Experience." The Cognitive Neurosciences. Ed. Michael S. Gazzaniga. Cambridge MA: MIT P, 1995. 1357-71.

MacLean, Paul D. "A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior." The Hincks Memorial Lectures. Eds. T. Boag and D. Campbell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973. 6-66.

Schore, Allan N. Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.

Schwartz, Murray M. "Where is Literature?" College English 36 (1975): 756-65.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction, and the Arts." SubStance 94/95 (2001): 6-27.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: A Neuro-Psychoanalytic View". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 18, 2002, Published: January 22, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Norman N. Holland