A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature

A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature

By Nigel Fabb

Anthem Studies in Bibliotherapy and Well-Being

A psychological explanation of goosebumps and tears, of the epiphanic experience of seeing something ordinary in a profoundly new way, and of the overwhelming perception of the sublime. These experiences found in life and literature involve a feeling of coming to know something deeply important but impossible to describe.

EPUB, 226 Pages


July 2022

£25.00, $40.00

PDF, 226 Pages


July 2022

£25.00, $40.00

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About This Book

This book groups together three kinds of experience: the experience of the sublime, of 'epiphany' which is generally a profound experience of something ordinary, and the feeling of 'thrills' which can be a shiver down the spine or sudden tears. 

These 'strong experiences' have been extensively studied, but almost always separately from one another, and in a variety of disciplines, and so this is the first major attempt to bring them together under a relatively simple psychological account. The book reviews some of the work on the sublime and epiphanies, including life-changing epiphanies, in the literary critical, philosophical and psychological literature. It explores how we can feel that we know things which are deeply important without being able to put what we know into words, and it also offers an introduction to some basic psychological ideas about knowledge. The book focuses on the physical aspects of the experience, and their relation to emotions, and looks in detail at what the body actually does when we feel goosebumps and similar sensations. It continues to outline some of the simple psychological notions which support this account of strong experiences, including how surprise works, and other related notions such as curiosity, attention and empathy, and why ordinary things can sometimes be perceived as though they are sources of profound insight.

The final section briefly summarises various devices in literary texts which can be used to trigger strong experiences in a reader. It concludes by noting that our strong experiences of literary texts and other aesthetic objects are related to our more general aesthetic experience.


‘Cognitive literary study has tended to confine itself to a few approaches. Nigel Fabb’s exciting new book reminds us that there is a vast range of underutilized cognitive research and theorization that may contribute greatly to our understanding of literary reception, significantly extending the scope of psychological explanation of literature.’ – Patrick Colm Hogan, author of Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts (2016).

‘Nigel Fabb has written a wonderfully informative book exploring the ineffable thrills and chills that can make literature so compelling to readers. Fabb presents a taxonomy of strong emotional experiences based on an encyclopedic tour of the pertinent philosophical, psychological, physiological and literary ideas. A major contribution to the scientific understanding of the literary experience.’ – David Huron, PhD, Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University, USA.

‘Nigel Fabb’s book is the fruit of decades of gestation and condenses a lifetime of research into a clear, exciting and illuminating argument. He provides insights into how the ordinary becomes extraordinary in everyday life and how that helps us understand the complex process of aesthetic practice and the ways people are affected by aesthetic forms. Surprise and the strong experiences it can generate, and the sublime and epiphany are organizing tropes that show commonalities and differences across different modes of expression. As Fabb writes, these are ‘ways of grouping certain experiences which might be related, with the goal of understanding why they arise’. They are fundamental to the ways in which people experience being in the world and are integral to aesthetic practices. The book helps us understand how, in different ways and different genres, artists can create sublime moments which may or may not be accompanied by a sense of understanding or realization. At times reading this book produced my own moments of epiphany!’ – Howard Morphy FASSA. FAHA., Emeritus Professor, Head of the Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University, AUS.


‘Professor Nigel Fabb’s book is a highly interesting and successful attempt at gathering diverse aesthetic phenomena and affective experiences of literature under the common rubric of “strong experiences”, and to seek a general, simple and unified account of such experiences in surprise. Fabb thoroughly and clearly explains how the two kinds of surprises, “surprise caused by a perception, and metacognitive surprise about the perception itself” lead to such strong experiences. This book will be of great relevance to scholars and students of literature, aesthetics and psychology.’ – Thor Magnus Tangerås, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Narrative Methods, Kristiania University College, Norway.

Author Information

Author or co-author of eleven books on literature and linguistics.


Anthem Studies in Bibliotherapy and Well-Being

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Dedication; 1. Introduction: Strong experiences and what causes them; 2. The study of strong experiences; 3. Epistemic feelings and knowledge; 4. Arousal, emotion and strong experiences; 5. The psychological background; 6. How literature triggers strong experiences; 7. Conclusions; Bibliography; Index


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