Despite its long oral and unrecorded history, literature means for most people printed texts and reading. Yet shades of this preliterate past remain and continue to affect our responses to written literary forms today. Studies of mothers' interactions with prelinguistic infants reveal “proto-”aesthetic characteristics that babies prefer to adult-directed speech, suggesting that adult psychology and experience grow from and build upon inborn motives and preferences. Synthesizing contemporary concepts and findings from developmental psychology, ethology, evolutionary psychology, paleoarchaeology, and neuroscience, this article describes five “proto-”aesthetic devices and three “principles of salience” that universally inhere in mother/infant interaction and that remain important substrates of emotional response to literature. The article argues that our sensitivity to some nonverbal, emotional, and aesthetic aspects of literary narrative and other arts originated in an adaptive social context in our evolutionary past.

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