“Plugged in and Feeling the Fiction”

Imagine wearing a vest-like device while reading a book, so that when you come upon a scene brimming with heart-racing tension, the vest emits vibrations to increase your heart rate and compresses your ribcage to convey the tightness felt by the protagonist in the throes of his peril.

Sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, but it is not.

An intriguing article described MIT student scientists developing a vest with programmable LEDs, so one can experience physical sensations while reading fiction.

Although this device in its current form is crude and unwieldy, the quest to produce such a gadget says plenty about our culture's attempt to harness technology and enhance human experience.

Is this a worthwhile pursuit?

Through powerful writing, good fiction creates both emotional and physical reactions. Words provide images in the reader's mind, which are transformed into feeling states ranging from revulsion, rage and despair, to empathy, nostalgia and love.

Haven't we all experienced physical sensations triggered by the imagination's link to the written word? While reading the terrible choice Sophie was forced to make in the death-camps (Sophie's Choice), did we need an external contraption to feel tears or a lump in our throats? To feel aroused while reading Fifty Shades of Grey, did we need a strap-on device to experience sexual tinglings?


The human mind is pre-programmed to provide physical and emotional reactions to the word-pictures found on a page.

As a psychiatrist, I know the amygdala within the brain's limbic system regulates memory and emotion, processing everything conveyed by the written word.

As a novelist, I know my task is to provide the reader with a richly textured story to evoke many feelings.

Must we further enhance fictional experience with technology? Do we want to feel a jolt of searing pain when a character is stabbed or shot, and do we wish to double-up in agony when Jack Reacher is on the receiving end of a solid punch to the gut?

I don't think so.

This MIT project raises other questions.

Is the increasing digitalization of our world altering our humanity? Must we don a vest or implant a subcutaneous chip to experience our natural sensations and feelings? Will we someday have programmable emotions because our capacities have atrophied to the point of unresponsiveness? Is this emblematic of the numbing-down of our specie?

I'm not a troglodyte, but I think the very technologies meant to enhance communication are paradoxically diminishing real interaction. We text rather than talk. We e-mail instead of telephoning. Some people live virtual lives — they've become avatars — meeting and having sex online. Are these "real" relationships?

As for boosted reading — augmenting sensations and emotions — I'll rely on my imagination to see, hear, feel, smell and appreciate the sights, sounds and feeling states an author is conveying. I neither want nor need technologic enhancement to experience fully the magical world of a well-written novel.

Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad.

*reprinted with permission from author

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