Do Popular Genres Map to the Seven Emotional Pathways of the Mammalian Brain?

The eminent neuroscientist, Jaak Panskepp, pioneered the study of emotion in mammals. He is famous for, among other things, tickling rats in the lab to make them laugh, but his work wasn’t a joke. He discovered that all mammals, including humans, share the same seven emotional pathways, commonly identified as: fear, care, lust, rage, panic/grief, seeking, and play. These are not vague “predispositions” teased from statistical analysis of animal behavior, though. Panskepp identified specific anatomical circuits for each system, complete with distinct hormones and neurotransmitters. Fear, for example, runs from the amygdala through the hypothalamus to the brainstem and down the spinal cord.


In my industry, you often see another seven-item list, that of the “standard” genres. Of course, there’s no uniformity here. Wikipedia, for example, says they are: romance, western, inspirational, crime, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. (People don’t always realize it, but romance accounts for about half of all dollars spent on fiction, with inspirational taking up another quarter or so.) In terms of importance, I think it makes sense to swap western for mystery, which is far more prevalent, but there’s nothing magical about any of it. Ultimately any list is meant to cover the same market, just under a different hierarchy.

Reading about Panskepp’s discoveries yesterday, it struck me that his seven emotional pathways could be obliquely mapped to the popular genres (as measured by percentage of total dollar sales). For example:

Seeking=>Science fiction

At first glance, there seems to be a disjoint between the final pathway, ‘play,’ and the final genre, fantasy, but this is where we need to be careful with our hierarchy. As Wikipedia points out, many critics consider the western novel formative, with my preference (mystery) being “too commercial” to be taken seriously. But unlike mystery or science fiction, both western and fantasy are established by their setting rather than their thematic or emotional content, so including them on our list here means mapping apples to oranges.

Science fiction is often lumped with fantasy under the cumbersome heading “speculative fiction,” and for good reason. We should add western. Indeed, in the early days, most science fiction was western, with the “sheriff” riding a rocket ship rather than a horse and slinging a blaster rather than a revolver to corral the unruly inhabitants of an alien, rather than a Great Plains, frontier.


Thus, it’s probably more apt to say:

where adventure includes sci-fi, fantasy, western, nautical fiction, jungle stories, and so on.

Of course, that still leaves the last pathway unassigned. Here I would propose:

where comedy includes genres not on the “standard” list, such as the cozy mystery, the romcom, most children’s books, etc.

If the science is right, then the classic tragedy/comedy dichotomy is probably bunk — or at least too simplistic to be meaningful — and we should ditch it. I never liked it, to be honest. It implied a normative hierarchy. Tragedy is serious. Comedy is not. Note the lack of anything comedic on the critics’ list of “serious” genres. Note also how popular comedians — from Tom Hanks to Robin Williams to Bill Murray — turn to tragic acting, usually late in their careers, in order to be taken seriously, as if making people laugh was inferior to making them cry. It’s a disgusting standard invented by an aristocratic literati who were far enough removed from any real struggle not to need a little mirth from time to time. (Personally, I find making people laugh is both more difficult and more meaningful.)

Literature only accounts for a few percentage points’ worth of all dollars spent on fiction, just as arthouse films are perpetually dwarfed by blockbusters. I only mention it because literature’s relative unpopularity seems to support the hypothesis that Homo sapiens react most strongly — instinctively, even — to stories operating within one of the seven mammalian emotional systems, which could potentially be the biological basis of genre, leaving the sliver of modern lit as a historically-recent intellectual anomaly. In other words, in the future utopia predicted by Star Trek, Moby Dick is still unlikely to be as popular as something like Star Trek itself.

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To me, all of this is fascinating, and it completely derailed my work this week. I wanted to know, as a “genre author,” which emotional systems I primarily employ and whether or not the books I write were tickling the appropriate neural pathways. Of course, answering that question requires an accurate mapping. Some of the assignments are obvious. Horror activates the ‘fear’ pathway and romance/erotica ‘lust.’ We can also rule some assignments out. Crime/thriller probably doesn’t significantly activate ‘care.’ But it’s not obvious that mystery activates ‘rage.’

Here I think we need to be clear what we mean. A romance doesn’t have to make the reader horny, although it certainly can. Many light romances don’t feature sex of any kind. What’s more, humans feel many more emotions than the seven identified. But then, by ‘rage’ we don’t mean that specific emotion. It’s a label, not of the feeling itself but the physical, neuroanatomical system that mediates that class of feelings. In the case of the ‘lust’ circuit, that’s sex and reproduction, romantic relationships, and associated phenomena.


It’s also important not to think that a genre has to operate exclusively in its primary system. There can be sad bits and sexy bits and adventurous bits in any story. The idea, though, is that there is a primary system for each genre that must be significantly activated for the book to resonate in that genre, and that this is a biological process independent of the label assigned by the retailer. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be marketed as science fiction, but “biologically” it’s a comedy. It activates the ‘play’ circuit. (And indeed, there’s very little “scientific” about it.)

It seems clear to me that thrillers — works by John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Tom Clancy, for example — activate the ‘panic/grief’ circuit. These books usually start with some calamitous trigger that sets the protagonists running. Indeed, the classic thriller novel cover art features a desperate figure running from a shadowy threat. And in as much as the antagonists tend to be Muslim terrorists or secret agents or corrupt politicians, thrillers are often fueled by in-group sympathies (like patriotism) and out-group hatred of the kind we’d expect to be mediated by a panic/flight response, where there’s an immediate threat to the herd that must be dealt with by its capable guardians. No wonder this is the most popular genre for military authors and readers.

That leaves mystery assigned to the ‘rage’ pathway more or less by process of elimination. But remember, ‘rage’ is just a label. It stands for the full range of associated emotions: madness, violence, obsession, enmity, and so on. Indeed, the word madness comes from the classic belief that one can get so angry, so mad, as to lose one’s mind. Also recall that a mystery doesn’t need to make the reader feel angry (but it can). It just has to operate in or activate that neuropathway, and I think it does.


The classic mystery starts with a horrible crime of passion — usually a murder, of course — where the detective must uncover not only the identity of the killer but the reason why they did it — the source of the rage that led to the terrible crime. Often we’re invited to sympathize with the killer, where what made them angry also makes us angry. (It’s just that they went too far.) Many of Agatha Christie’s victims, for example, were despicable people who “deserved” to die, often because of how they mistreated others, which all of us can relate to. It’s worth noting here that Mrs. Christie isn’t just the most popular mystery writer but the single best-selling author of all time!

By contrast, in Seicho Matsumoto’s award-winning Inspector Imanishi Investigates, the reader is invited not to sympathize with the killer’s rage but to feel angry at him. Japanese society is highly communitarian after all. Its people value personal commitment and teamwork above all else. But it’s also very class-based. For a lower-class man to cheat his way into wealth and then kill to cover that up is a horrible transgression, especially in the aftermath of the war, when everyone was struggling. The eponymous inspector satiates our anger, as the detective is always meant to do, by catching the offender and bringing him to justice. And indeed the theme of justice — fulfilled or betrayed — is central to the genre, even in its hard-boiled guises.

However, I recognize all of that is speculative. There’s nothing that says the mapping has to be globally neat. Mystery might best be lumped with thriller/crime/suspense as it often is at the bookstore, leaving ‘rage’ unassigned. But given that the neuroscience is well established, and given that the sales data confirm the perennial popularity of those key genres, and given the near-perfect fit for all categories but the last, the model works for me, at least as a place to start.

And if so, it’s important, and for several reasons. First, it explains why these genres and not others are perennially the most beloved of readers: because we’re hardwired to enjoy them. It also suggests we’re unlikely to see any new phyla of literary genre since we’ve tapped all our innate pathways — although I suppose some might shift over the centuries. And we should be careful with blending too liberally. An author can do that, but the theory suggests one genre must remain master of the others if the story is ever to resonate with a wide audience.

art by Joel Rea

The hypothesis also explains the common wisdom you often hear in storytelling circles that the whole point of any work of narrative fiction is to give the reader a “satisfactory emotional experience.” In other words, to function effectively, your book has to trigger the appropriate emotional pathway — and to provide a release — else you risk leaving the reader in confusion or unease.

Finally, in as much as the seven pathways are evolved survival responses highly conserved across mammalian species, the hypothesis suggests that intelligent life on other planets might tell similar stories, or at least similar enough to be thematically recognizable (although probably not enjoyable) to us. I find that comforting, that stable behavioral responses to disparate worlds yet made of the same chemistry and physics might mean we can find a common narrative — if not with aliens, then at least with each other.

But then, anyone who’s a reader already knew that.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”                                        -Ursula K. Le Guin

Here is the final model:


What do you think?

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