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Movie Audience © courtesy: Jeff Wall and Johnen Galerie, BerlinFICTION (i.e., Fiction in Emotion) is a three years (2012-2015) interdisciplinary project funded by the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche). The aim of the project is to illuminate, at both the philosophical and the experimental levels, a central feature of human nature: namely, the experience of getting emotionally involved with the characters and events of a fiction. Our hypothesis is that these responses involve emotions that form a genuine kind distinct from the emotions that we have toward real persons and events. We call such emotions “semantic”, insofar as they disengage (at least part of) the episodic system while being modulated by semantic circuits in the brain.

Fictions of very different kinds (involving images, novels, plays, operas, ballets, movies) are known to generate strong emotional experiences in large audiences. For over forty years, philosophers have struggled with the “paradox of fiction”, which is the issue of how we can get emotionally involved with fictional characters and events. What is the nature of sadness or joy when these emotions are not tied to a real personal loss or satisfaction? FICTION (Fiction in Emotion) addresses this issue with the aim of understanding the nature of our emotional responses and their dependence on our cognitive background.

Empirical evidence suggests that our involvement with fiction as such is associated with a disengagement or inhibition of the episodic system. The latter involves limbic structures such as the hippocampus, which underlies episodic experiences (either memories of personal events or self-projections into the future). Our engagement with fictional works activates other cerebral areas typically involved in semantic processes, such as fronto-temporal areas. On this basis, our main hypothesis, to be assessed at both the conceptual and the empirical levels, is that emotional responses towards fictional scenes identified as such are what we call “semantic emotions”, a species of emotions to be distinguished from real-life emotions.

On our view, “semantic emotions” are emotional experiences that disengage the episodic system, and are mainly modulated by semantic circuits (whence our terminological choice). We surmise that “semantic emotions” are aroused by emotional fictional scenes as soon as they are recognized as fictional. Moreover, FICTION, on the one hand, will 1) critically evaluate the claim that “semantic emotions” form a psychological natural kind and 2) assess the hypothesis that such emotions are unique experiences at the personal level of the conscious subject, even if they are characterized at the sub-personal level by a disengagement or inhibition of the episodic system.