Can you feel what I feel? Emotional contagion

Ever wondered why it is you can feel what another person is feeling?  I was trying to work it out after that amazing gestalt session with John Leary-Joyce.

After the session, people came up to me and reported feeling the same thing in their body at the same time as I was feeling it in mine.  For example, I felt heat starting in my head and which then spread down through my body.  Throughout I could feel my stomach was tight.  Other people also fed back to me that while they were watching, they could feel their bodies getting hot and their stomachs feeling tight.

People also fed back that when I felt close to tears they felt close to tears.

So what’s going on? How does that happen? What is that?

I went to a HayHouse ‘I can do it’ conference way back in 2011 and went to Ali Campbell’s workshop.  It started off a bit like life coaching but then he asked for a volunteer. Ali is big in the NLP world and can use hypnosis but it is what I felt in my body that was so weird.

He asked the girl to relax, she had to think of something she wanted to let go of.  He reassured her that she could lean on him and that she would be OK.  I can’t remember the details now, but there were 2 points where he called for her to let go of whatever it was she wanted to release. Each time she visibly, fell into him, on one of the occasions, almost collapsing completely.

Whilst that was remarkable enough, what was even more interesting/confusing/ awesome/ weird was that as she collapsed..I felt a surge of energy go through me.  Until that point I had never been a big believer of ‘energy’. I once did a 1 day Reiki course and couldn’t feel a thing as a giver or a receiver.

On that day I felt a surge of something that started at my feet and flew up through my body to my head and out. And I felt it twice; each time the girl ‘let go’ and fell into Campbell further.

Before he did his demo Campbell asked if there were energy seers in the audience (it was  Hay House conference so there were many) and he asked them to stand in the isle and report back on what they experienced.  Whatever it was I felt in my body, one of them ‘saw’ a wave and others had seen colour and others had felt it.  If hadn’t felt it in my own body I wouldn’t have believed what they said.

Now Ali Campbell must have known what he was doing because he asked those people to describe it.  Was it that he had hypnotised a whole audience and auto-suggested what we would experience subliminally in some way?

Maybe.

But now when I’m trying to work our how it was possible for people in the audience to feel what I was feeling emotionally and physically, there must have been something else going on because I’m not a hypnotist and if anything was feeling disconnected from the audience to start with and I certainly had no expectation of them feeling anything.

So what is that then?

Well, neuro-science has discovered mirror-neurons and suggest that they are how we are able to empathise and to imagine how someone else is experiencing things.  (Read this article in the American Psychological Association to see the science).  This goes some way to explaining emotional contagion; one person starts crying and we all do.

But not everyone does that.  Not everyone is moved when another person is upset and yet the work around the mirror-neuron seems to suggest that it is an evolved mechanism which is part of being human.

When I consider what they 2 situations have in common; me in the demo and Ali leading his demo, I see some similarities:

  • The audience in both cases were curious and interested in what was happening
  • They were paying attention
  • They had the intention of learning from the experience
  • They were aware of what was going on for them (or else how can they have told me what they experienced)

I still have no idea what I and Ali Campbell were doing.

I was able to ask him later what he had done and he said that he had ‘got out of his own way’.  I didn’t really understand at the time, but I wonder if he meant that he dropped his ego and made himself vulnerable. That’s what I think I did.

I was talking this through with P and we were reflecting on the film we watched the other night and how it moves him.  He also reflected on how he isn’t always moved by things and I realised that there are times when I feel more shut off too. So then we wondered whether the ability to connect deeply with another person is like a switch that is either on or off.

Then we got curious about why it is that some people who are moved by films, music, books and art and are still not able to connect with people emotionally. I wonder whether it is because the emotions are going in one direction; from the film or book to you. So you can receive emotions without having to transmit any yourself. And that makes sense because it is much harder to let other people see how we feel than it is to see how they feel; it makes us very vulnerable to let other people connect with us at a deep emotional level

So maybe another condition for experience to be shared emotionally, physically and energetically is that both sides need to be able to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable, as Brene Brown writes about it is is to dare greatly. When we are really ourselves and open to how we feel and how others feel, we risk rejection and pain. Which is why some people decide to switch the Off button.

From those 2 experiences of intense connection in a room of people, it would be unthinkable to hurt another person when you are experiencing what they are experiencing.

Wouldn’t that be trans-formative if we could all get to the point where were all so tuned in to each other that hurting each other would be like hurting our self?  P and I disagreed on that point and the next.  He said that I was being Pollyanna (which wouldn’t be the first time). My point was that I wondered if we were all born vulnerable and sensitive but that some people have lives which make them switch the off button and that it is this that leads them to do bad things and hurt people. I went on to argue that if we could reach into them and see their fear and vulnerability, they would be healed and couldn’t hurt other people.

P disagreed.  His opinion is that there are bad people in the world, get used to it and stop trying to fix them.  ‘You wouldn’t stand next to a hungry lion connecting with it vulnerably and come out alive’. Good point.

So..this is as far as we have got:

Intense emotional and somatic connection is possible when:

  1. we pay attention
  2. we have the intention to connect
  3. we are self aware
  4. we are curious about ourselves and the other
  5. We have our own emotions switched on

That said, P’s lion comment has led me to conclude that we need to decide with whom and when we want to connect in this way.  Brene Brown challenges the idea of vulnerability as a weakness and frames it as a strength.

Maybe it is more complex than that.  I absolutely see that vulnerability allows a connection that is moving, intense and beautiful.  However I also know how I feel when I am allowing myself to be vulnerable with people who can’t receive it, who are not showing the qualities above; it hurts.

So maybe the key to all this is to use our on/off switch.  there are times when we need to be vulnerable and intense and I would hate to live without these experiences which connect person to person deeply and beyond words.  However, we don’t need to be vulnerable standing by a lion, we will just get hurt.

I was just about to end with ‘I don’t know what I was doing to allow people to feel what I was feeling – if anything’. But when I look at the 5 conditions above..I was doing all those. Maybe that’s all it is.

  • Think of the times when you have experienced what someone else is experiencing emotionally
  • How would you explain that?
  • When has it served you to connect this intensely?
  • When did you get hurt by connecting in this way?

Let me know what you think.

Julie

ps

I’ve also been writing for Psychologies Magazine Life Labs so click here to read more.

If you’re a teacher then I’ve written some schooly stuff here.

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julieleoni.com@gmail.com