The Romantic Syndrome: A Neuropsychological Perspective.
Isabel Jaén


1. Romanticism and emotional distress

Emotional unbalance is responsible for major literary attitudes, such as the one adopted by the romantic literary movement. Let us begin by defining this artistic trend. Romanticism, born in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, is associated with extreme emotional reactions, similar to those we could find in a manic-depressive patient (1), with periods of euphoria followed by periods of depression in which the romantic character feels that the world is a frustrated reality, and life is a tragedy. The depressive phases can lead to desperation and eventually to suicide. In general, Romanticism represents the domain of those—often destructive—emotional responses over the logic of reason, as they are portrayed in the literary production of the time. It can also include an absence of emotion and of motivation towards existence—tedium vitae. Such apathy may result in a suicidal response as well.

The present paper deals with literature and we all know that literature consists of pretending to experience some of the emotions and attitudes described before. Those “manic-depressive” and apathetic subjects that I am describing are just identities developed in the imagination of an author. This author might be perfectly healthy and have absolutely nothing to do with her characters, or she might share some common features with them (2). Interestingly, never before in the history of literature do we find such a mysterious connection between those “fake” hyper-emotional attitudes of literary characters in a book and the real, unstable lives of their authors, as is in the romantic period. I will attempt to offer a new perspective on the blurry frontiers between life and fiction, an interesting phenomenon that literary critics have always wondered about, by looking at literature in the context of the minds that actually create it.

2. Neurophysiology of emotions

As Joseph LeDoux reminds us, the mammalian system is basically emotional (3). Emotions are usually defined by neuroscientists as behavioral responses to environmental situations. The emotional neuro-path originated by an external stimulus travels from the brain to the body, where physical changes take place, and back to the cortex, where a trace of the emotional response to the particular situation will be coded and kept as a “feeling” (4). This is exemplified by the James-Lange model that I reproduce here:


Neurobiologically speaking, three main systems seem to be involved in emotion (5): the amygdala, which receives inputs from the association cortex of the temporal lobe, the frontal cortex, the limbic system, and the olfactory system; the orbitofrontal cortex, whose inputs come from the other regions of the frontal lobes, temporal pole, amygdala, and limbic system; and the cingulate gyrus, and projects to the limbic system and the frontal cortex. The amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex seem to play important roles in the organization of emotional responses and its translation into actions, respectively, and the cingulate gyrus is related to motivation. Here is another view by LeDoux, who points at the amygdala as the center of emotions, the “emotional computer” as he calls it (6).

3. Literature and the "artificiality" of emotions

According to Antonio Damasio, emotions can be classified under two main groups: primary (innate, such as fear, anger, joy, etc.) and secondary (drawn from experience). The latter depend on the connections we make between “categories of objects and situations on the one hand, and primary emotions on the other” (7). In the James-Lange model described above, those secondary emotions would correspond to the “feelings,” to the actual conceptualization of emotion. This “response-as-cause and-feeling-as-result” conception of emotions assumes the pre-existence of “physical” reactions by muscles, ANS, and the endocrine system. I believe we can understand this primary-secondary emotion pathway in a broader sense, keeping but modifying the James-Lange model. Carlson (8) compiles some of the objections that this theory found in pointing at those “bodily” reactions as the origin of emotional feelings. Interestingly, other experiments by Ekman, Levenson, and Friesen showed that “fake” emotions, in which an emotional response is simulated by, for example, imitating somebody else’s external expression of emotions, could actually provoke changes in the autonomic nervous system (9). As I mentioned before, literature mainly consists of “faking.” The author does not necessarily need to experience strong romantic emotions to conceptualize and portray them with incredible realism. This is what I mean by a broader understanding of the concept of secondary emotion that should be applied to literary studies: Literary emotion (as in the “manic-depressive” variety we find in Romanticism) is artificially produced, intellectualized, born already in the state of “feeling.” The romantic author carefully works and artificially crafts her characters' behaviors and feelings. As a follower of a particular artistic trend, let's say in this case the romantic movement, she must first acknowledge what producing a romantic work means; that is, what are the emotional responses, the attitudes, and the moods that she is to reflect upon her work in order to ascribe herself inside that trend. In this sense, the individual's cultural environment plays an important role in the expression of what we may now call “secondary literary emotions” conferred on book characters in order to make them consistent with the “official” paradigm of romantic identity. In an interesting article on the “cultural framework” of emotions, Kitayama and Markus tell us that “if we assume that the emotional experiences that affirm the cultural frame are those that will be highlighted and emphasized [by a given cultural group], then certain social behavior that elicits, fosters or reflects the focal emotions should be relatively common” (10). Also, in their work on emotion and identity, Havilland and Kahlbaugh remind us that "in the sense that sociologists and anthropologists describe the emergence of sociocultural structures from individual structures, there is a reverse process in which cultural structure dictates the individual” (11).

4. Fictional-real emotions: the loop

Nevertheless, it would be a far too simplistic theorization to talk about literature as just a group of authors creating characters with emotional responses that follow the agenda of a particular trend. Our romantic writers happen to be human beings as well, able not only to fake and write but also to actually feel emotions “in their own flesh.” Let us also remember that the romantic trend is not limited to the production of works of art only. It is a broader movement that contains a particular attitude toward the world; this attitude reaches the author herself, and it is precisely here where we find the curious phenomenon of romantic writers imitating the emotional responses of their characters and creating a kind of parallel life with them, which many times ends up with tragic results, just as it happened in their books. There are the examples of Heinrich Von Kleist (Germany), who killed himself at 34, or Larra (Spain), who committed suicide at 28, among many others. We can say that, in the mind of the romantic author, the James-Lange pathway works bidirectionally, creating an interesting loop: The romantic man is able to produce the romantic negative emotion artificially, and he can be absorbed by it to the point of actually developing the same behavioral responses that the fictional characters have, in this case the suicidal impulse.

5. The contextual factor

The view of the romantic man immersed in the Romantic Movement, shaping his own life according to the trend’s requirements, could be supported by the schema theory. For theorists like Neisser, Johnson, or Gillespie (12), we tend to perceive the world according to the categorization we have made of it.

In this schema development, the individual’s context plays an important role. By looking at this context, we might be able to explain a little bit better the emotionally unbalanced behavior that makes the romantic author the imitator of his/her own fiction. As a human being immersed in a social environment, the romantic author finds himself living specific historical events. For the romantic man, those events are particularly related to radical behavioral responses such as revolutions. The romantic period (going from the end of the eighteenth century to approximately the mid 1800s, depending on the country) corresponds to a general social agitation. Having the French revolution of 1789 as a breakthrough example to imitate, many countries begin to claim independence from their colonizers (case of Argentina, Peru, Greece, Serbia, etc.) or to stand up for their rights as members of a marginalized sector of society. 1848 is an especially significant year: We find revolutions in different points of Europe (Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Milan, Parma, Poland, Prague, etc.). These revolts are performed by different social groups (workers, bourgeoisie, students, etc). 1848 is also the year in which Karl Marx delivers his Communist manifesto. In this atmosphere of social convulsion and radical response to injustice, the romantic man has the opportunity of living the extreme emotions he will be talking about. It is very difficult then to determine what comes first, the strong emotional response in an immediate radicalized environment or the artificial categorization of those emotions as dictated by the fashionable literary trend that the romantic authors intend to follow.

6. Love, stress, drug addiction, and the neurochemistry of emotions

“Intimately” speaking, interpersonal relationships during the Romanticism are marked by a strong sensitivity and often uncontrollable passions. Is this another product of the radical attitude? Is it just the kind of behavior that is being promoted from literature and that everybody ends up adopting as a conduct guideline? Our romantic men will very often fall in love with the wrong person, a situation that will lead them to frustration. This frustration can well be part of the depressive phase of the mania illness we talked about at the beginning of the paper, and it can be followed by a period of euphoria, maybe motivated by some kind of ephemeral hope in the difficult situation of the romantic individual, and then, in turn, followed by another decrease in mood, motivation, energy, psychomotor activity, etc (13). In the romantic man, the negative phase of the cycle tends to last longer than the positive euphoria one. This maintenance of a negative emotion of frustration and/or desperation in the romantic subject can be parallel to a stress situation in which the continuous release of hormones like epinephrine as well as the increased activity of the autonomic nervous system can lead to damage of overall health. Had the romantic subject inhabited the 1950s, it would have been treated with the infallible remedy called prefrontal lobotomy, which would have certainly alleviated his symptoms of emotional distress, but would have reduced him to a selfish, irresponsible individual (something that the romantic man had already been accused of being) due to the damage inflicted on the frontal lobes.

Perceiving the world as an adverse habitat can be particularly disastrous for the romantic man’s immunological system, since doing so impairs the system’s functions, making the organism much more vulnerable to any kind of illness. This can explain the high vulnerability of the romantic man to the nineteenth century illness tuberculosis, also known as the romantic illness, which killed poets like John Keats (at 26) and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (at 34).

Another common emotion present in the romantic individual is the complete apathy toward existence, which almost resembles a “lack of emotion.” The lack of emotional response is defined by psychologists as a stand-by situation that occurs between emotions. Damasio calls this state “background feeling,” and Lazarus (14) precisely equates it to the concept of “mood.” In contrast to the “brief emotional phenomena that arise in particular adaptational encounters with the environment,” (15) “mood” would be a longer temporal state. As we said before, apathy can also lead to extreme behavioral responses such as self-annihilation. This is also a particularly common phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century, when we find the so-called mal de fin de siècle. “Inability to experience emotion related to concepts that ordinarily evoke emotion (16)” can be due to ventromedial lesions, whereas a genetic transmission factor has been identified in “manic-depressive illness.” Still, a biological cause for BD, shared by so many romantic men and women at the same time during a particular historical period, seems to be a strange case to make.

At this point, let us have a look at the neurochemistry of emotions. Neurochemically speaking, a variety of neurotransmitters seem to be involved in emotional mechanisms. Excitatory glutamate and inhibitory GABA are among the most important, and are the first to have evolved in the human brain, according to Jaak Panksepp (17). Glutamate seems to play an important role in basic motor plans for many emotions and in psychic processes related to fear, whereas GABA would have to do with the control of anxiety. Other neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine (catecholamines) seem to be important in affect situations. In his essay Panksepp posits that “human positive emotionality has been related to heightened dopamine activity, and different forms of depression might result from depletions of individual cathecholamine systems or from serotonine.” Interestingly, some of these catecholamine systems seem to be critical to the rewarding effects of drugs like cocaine. In his article, Drevets precisely mentions the similarity between the “bipolar course of manic-depressive illness” and that of cocaine dependence, in which euphoria of the reuptake is followed by depression and ahedonia in the withdrawal state. Drug use is a very common practice in the romantic artist. Cocaine was first extracted from coca leaves around 1855 and, by 1880, is chewed by race walkers to improve their performance. Cocaine might have been used with the same recreating purposes by the fin de siècle’s artists, along with other drugs like opium (used among nineteenth century English literary and creative personalities Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Dickens) and might have been a factor contributing to the spread of the "manic-depressive romantic disorder" symptoms of Romanticism. Let us remember also that some other non-drug addictions are able to produce a similar effect to the one occasioned by cocaine on the release of dopamine. Such is the case of “life events that might be reinforcing to a given individual’s behaviors” (18). Undoubtedly, the most important life event for the romantic subject is “love.” As portrayed in literature, the idealized lover’s affection constitutes the romantic man’s more important addiction, and its deprivation can certainly cause a withdrawal syndrome leading to continuous dysphoria and, thus, to the stress and fragile immunological condition that we were describing before. Obviously, this connection is just a hypothesis. Trying to look for a direct biological cause for romantic emotional impairment is not a complete methodology to approaching the romantic “character-author emotional parallel” phenomenon, which probably responds to a variety of different factors, some cultural, as we have seen, some biological. The idea of the Romantic man’s creating and believing in an artificial emotion that he can “physically” suffer from is not unlikely, though. As people like Johnson remind us (19), the body is inserted in the mind just as the mind is inserted in the body, and our neural network is a system of ascending and descending pathways traveling from our body to our cortex, which sends and receives information constantly.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, we can say that the “romantic” world makes the romantic author behave and write in a romantic way and that this romantic way of feeling and writing about the world contributes to shaping this particular literary period as romantic. In this sense, literature and life maintain a circular relationship, just as the one we have established for intellectualized-lived emotion on the basis of the James and Lange model: Literature influences life, and life influences literature. This idea also fits well with recent cognitive theory themes such as Einrich’s “creative loop” (20), in which we are shown how our brain is shaped by our surrounding environment just as our environment is shaped by our brain.



(1) As described by Wayne C. Drevets in "Mania.” Fundamental Neuroscience. Ed. Zigmond, Bloom, Landis, Robert, Squire. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999.


(2) I believe that there is always inevitably a certain degree of autobiographical information—more or less obviously shown—in every work of literature.


(3) Joseph LeDoux. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.


(4) See Antonio Damasio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994. Page 38.


(5) I am following Neil R. Carlson. The Physiology of Behavior. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998, for both the James-Lange model and the description on the neurophysiology of emotions.


(6) Joseph LeDoux. “Emotional Networks in the Brain”. Handbook of Emotions. Ed. Michael Lewis and Jeanette M. Havilland. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.


(7) See Damasio’s Descartes’s Error, page 134.


(8) In his Physiology of Behavior.


(9) See Carlson, page 344.


(10) Shinobu Kitayama and Hazel Rose Markus. “Introduction to Cultural Psychology and Emotion Research.” Emotion and Culture: Empirical Studies of Mutual Influence. Ed. Shinobu Kitayama and H.R. Markus. Washington: American Psychological Association, 1994.


(11) Jeannete M. Havilland and Patricia Kahlbaugh. “Emotion and Identity.” Handbook of Emotions. Ed. Michael Lewis and Jeanette M. Havilland. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.


(12) Key studies in schema theory are Ulric Neisser. Cognition and Reality: Principles and Omplications of Cognitive Pschology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976 and Mark Johnson. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. See also chapter 5 in Dianne Gillespie. The Mind’s We. Contextualism in Cognitive Psychology. Carbondale: Southern Illinois P, 1992.


(13) I follow Drevets here.


(14) Richard Lazarus. “The Stable and the Unstable in Emotion.” The Nature of Emotion. Ed. Paul Ekman and Richard J. Davidson. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.


(15) See Lazarus, page 82.


(16) See Drevets.


(17) I am following for this section Jaak Panksepp. “Neurochemical Control of Moods and Emotions: Amino Acids to Neuropeptides.” Handbook of Emotions. Ed. Michael Lewis and Jeanette M. Havilland. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.


(18) See George F. Koob. “Drug Reward and Addiction,” in Fundamental Neuroscience. Page 1276.


(19) In The Body in the Mind. See note 12.


(20) Erich Harth. The Creative Loop: How the Brain Makes a Mind. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993.


Back to Cognitive Science and Literature

Back to main page