If You’re Happy and You Know It…Or Do You?

I once asked my martial arts teacher a question about emotions. This isn’t as odd as it sounds, because it was a kung-fu school and we spent a lot of time talking about chi (life energy) and how emotional energy is the battery for everything we do.

So, I told him how, when I’d lived alone in grad school, I’d sometimes go a whole day or two without seeing anyone. Especially if I was holed up in my apartment on the weekends. This was before all the connectedness of email and Facebook. The world reached me only via my landline, the tv (which I never turned on) and the radio (and I only listened to music). What I’d found was that I wouldn’t notice I was in any particular emotional state, unless I happened to make contact with another person. Then I would discover I was irritable or depressed or happy, by the way I interacted with them.

His answer was that I “downloaded” the other person’s emotions. That I absorbed what they were feeling and that I had to learn to differentiate my emotions from theirs. This led into one of his typical rants about how this was yet another reason for us to shun the world at large and stay away from the contamination of the mass mind.

Obviously, I don’t completely agree. About so many things. Which is neither here nor there.

I think there is something to this, sure. I do think you can pick up on what other people are feeling. If the energetic thing is too woo-woo for you, then suffice to say that we’re really good at picking up subconscious cues from each other. Our pets perceive our feelings and intentions. David knows what state of mind I’m in from the moment I walk in the door. If you’re a reasonably empathetic person who pays attention, you’ll pick up on what the people around you are feeling.

But I don’t think that’s what I experienced in my living-alone days. I think it has something more to do with context. That it’s hard to define something without a point of reference. For example, our visual system works through edge-detection. The receptors in our eyes and the neurons that connect with them respond to the contrast between one color and the next, or one shade and the next. Our visual cortex assembles images from all the lines and edges, then fills in the middle.

Maybe emotional states are like this, too. I might drift through a day or a weekend in an undefined dream. (Okay, yeah, this may be particular to me, being kind of a dreamy gal.) When I encounter someone else, I’m no longer just a wash of being — now there’s someone else and there’s a line between us, created by our differences, slight or great. Suddenly I have a point of reference.

The rest is just filling in the middle.

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