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Why We Like What We Like and Its Effect on Literary Evolution

fquadri's picture
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           Normal 0 MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 What are some of your favorite books, or favorite stories or works of art? How many people do you think have the same favorite books, stories, and works of art as you do? There may be similarities of preferences but chances are many people you know do not have the exact same preferences as you do. Some people in our class liked Leaves of Grass, others had no opinion, and some didn’t like it at all. I like Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass, but I don’t know if I will have a similar opinion about his final edition. Have you ever wondered why your favorite things are your favorite things? Why do you like what you like? What influences all of this? How does this contribute to the life of literature?

                Is it easy to answer, “Why do you like what you like”? From my experience, it usually takes a person at least a few seconds to come up with an answer. Some people may answer the question by stating their admiration for the characters in the book or explaining how they like the colors used in a certain painting. Some may describe how the artwork/book/song reminds them of a pleasant memory. Some respond with, “I don’t know, I just do”. However, in my opinion, the question isn’t completely answered. People list why certain literature, art, movies, or music are admirable to them but what part of them is attracted to certain aspects of such things?

                Some responses reflect emotional arousal such as, “I like this book because it makes me happy” or “I admire the protagonist”. It is not hard believe that emotions play a major role in determining what we like and what we don’t like. If something makes us happy or appreciative, chances are we will like it; if something makes us angry or offended, we probably will not like it. If something does not create an emotional response in us, chances are we will have no opinion and maybe even forget the object (anything from book to painting). However, the response that interests me the most is, “I don’t know, I just do”. They are not aware of the emotions and reasons behind these preferences. It would mean that the conscious (the part of a person that is associated with awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings), is not fully aware of why one likes what one likes. This leads me to believe that when it comes to preferences and likes/dislikes, the unconscious part (associated with unawareness) of a person plays a bigger role than what most may think. Is it possible that both emotions and the unconscious are related to some extent?

                Emotions are embedded in the unconsciousness whereas feelings are a part of the consciousness. Feelings are created when emotions from the unconscious reach the conscious and the conscious must construct feelings from emotions (2). We cannot control when we’re emotionally aroused, it just happens (2). For example, your favorite food became your favorite food when you felt pleasure eating it the first few times; you, as in your conscience self, cannot make yourself feel pleasure on command. You cannot eat something else that you have no strong opinion about and make yourself feel pleasure; you have to turn to something that your body will judge as pleasurable, not your mind. That was one way I saw the relation between emotions and the unconscious, however research explains this relationship in more depth.

                Various studies have shown that emotion is derived from sub-cortical brain systems (2) and that sub-cortical brain systems underlie basic “liking” reactions (3). A recent TIME magazine article discusses how some emotions such as admiration are rooted in the brain. Remember that the unconscious is associated with the functions the conscious is not aware of: heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, etc. According to the TIME magazine article, certain emotions such as compassion and admiration are rooted in an area of the brain that is “strongly interconnected with neural networks that regulate some of the body’s most basic functions” (1).

However what fascinated me the most was that physical skill/pain and emotion affected different areas of the body. Physical sensations evoked responses from musculoskeletal parts of our bodies (seems obvious), however, emotional sensations evoked responses from visceral parts of the body (1). Visceral areas, areas responsible for unconscious and involuntary functions, are connected to emotions. It almost sounds poetic; emotions come from the heart, or in this case, the viscera. The viscera are unconscious. Emotions come from the unconscious.

So your favorite things are your favorite things because of your emotional unconscious. This explains why sometimes you may not be completely sure why you like something so much. I really liked Leaves of Grass. I liked how it revolutionized poetry, how it celebrates life, and how it makes me appreciate myself and the world around me. What exactly in me is drawn to revolutionary hippie like poetry of Whitman? I guess it’s my unconscious. However, one question is still left to be answered: How does all of this contribute to the life of literature?

                Emotions and unconsciousness affect both the life and the evolution of literature. Authors, painters, and other people associated with similar fields are known for being in tune with their deeper selves (their unconscious) and this is why they are able to make something out of their imaginations. So in this case, unconsciousness can create genuine stories and works of art, sometimes in non-traditional ways. Emotions can make people strive to create something, anything from a poem to a portrait, as a reflection of what is happening to them on the inside. That was from an artist’s perspective, now from an audience’s perspective, unconsciousness and emotions act as natural selection towards literature. The unconscious creates emotions that determine people’s preferences, favorites, likes/dislikes, etc. If there are not enough people that are attracted to a certain genre of literature or to a certain style of artwork, then that genre or style will become extinct.

                Just like how nature and the environment affect the biological world, the unconsciousness of humans acts as a nature towards literature and artwork. It provides various emotions and an imagination that create a diverse range of work from love poems to graphic novels to abstract art to musical compositions. The unconsciousness promotes construction but it also has its form of natural selection where certain literary works and certain artworks will be more preferable than others; this can take place at an individual level or a population level. Likes and dislikes can be seldom predicted, it’s hard to tell how an individual or a group will react to a book or painting; they are just as random and unpredictable as biological evolution. It’s interesting to see that as we advance and move towards the future, our literary world and the culture around us still depends on our primitive and mysterious area of ourselves: the unconscious. 



1) "Admiration: An Emotion Rooted Deep in the Brain - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - 17 Apr. 2009 <,8599,1892225,00.html>.

2) "Unconscioius Emotions, Conscious Feelings and Curricular Challenges by Robert Sylwester." New Horizons for Learning. 17 Apr. 2009 <>.

3) Winkielman, Piotr, and Kent C. Berridge. "Unconscious Emotions." CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE 13 (2004): 120-23.



Paul Grobstein's picture

"Its interesting to see

"Its interesting to see that as we advance and move towards the future, our literary world and the culture around us still depends on our primitive and mysterious area of ourselves: the unconscious"

Interesting indeed.  Can one go beyond that?  Is it a thing to regret or a thing to celebrate?  What's the emotion/feeling?