Paul Bloom has a wonderful article on the workings of the imagination:
The emotions triggered by fiction are very real. When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people weptand I'm sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series led to similar tears. (After her final book was published, Rowling appeared in interviews and told about the letters she got, not all of them from children, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters such as Hagrid, Hermione, Ron, and, of course, Harry Potter himself.) A friend of mine told me that he can't remember hating anyone the way he hated one of the characters in the movie Trainspotting, and there are many people who can't bear to experience certain fictions because the emotions are too intense. I have my own difficulty with movies in which the suffering of the characters is too real, and many find it difficult to watch comedies that rely too heavily on embarrassment; the vicarious reaction to this is too unpleasant...
At every levelphysiological, neurological, psychologicalthe emotions are real, not pretend.
I take the point and cannot watch Ordinary People or Sling Blade (do your own psychoanalysis on that one). And then one recalls Oscar Wilde's imperishable line:
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.
And one feels a little better.