spiritual writings | retreat center directory

You're invited to visit our sister sites: DanJoseph.com, a resource site
featuring articles on spirituality, psychology, and A Course in Miracles, and
ColoradoCounseling.com, an information site on holistic cognitive therapy.

Home | Writings | General | Daniel Goleman | Social part 3 | next   

Excerpted from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Goleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 

"The fact that we can trigger any emotion at all in someone else – or they in us – testifies to the powerful mechanism by which one person's feelings spread to another."

  Daniel Goleman,
Social Intelligence, Part 3

THE LOW ROAD: CONTAGION CENTRAL

A man doctors call Patient X had suffered two strokes that destroyed the connections between his eyes and the rest of the brain's system for sight in the visual cortex. Though his eyes could take in signals, his brain could not decipher them, nor even register their arrival. Patient X was completely blind–or so it seemed.

On tests where Patient X was presented with various shapes like circles and squares, or photos of faces of men and women, he hadn't a clue what his eyes were gazing at. Yet when he was shown pictures of people with angry or happy faces, he suddenly was able to guess the emotions expressed, at a rate far better than chance. But how?

Brain scans taken while Patient X guessed the feelings revealed an alternative to the usual pathways for seeing that flow from the eyes to the thalamus, where all the senses first enter the brain, and then to the visual cortex. The second route sends information straight from the thalamus to the amygdala (the brain has a pair, right and left). The amygdala then extracts emotional meaning from the nonverbal message, whether it be a scowl, a sudden change of posture, or a shift in tone of voice–even microseconds before we yet know what we are looking at.

Though the amygdala has an exquisite sensitivity for such messages, its wiring provides no direct access to the centers for speech; in this sense the amygdala is, literally, speechless. When we register a feeling, signals from our brain circuits, instead of alerting the verbal areas, where words can express what we know, mimic that emotion in our own bodies. So Patient X was not seeing the emotions on the faces so much as feeling them, a condition called "affective blindsight."

In intact brains, the amygdala uses this same pathway to read the emotional aspect of whatever we perceive–elation in someone's tone of voice, a hint of anger around the eyes, a posture of glum defeat–and then processes that information subliminally, beneath the reach of conscious awareness. This reflexive, unconscious awareness signals that emotion by priming the same feeling (or a reaction to it, such as fear on seeing anger) in us–a key mechanism for "catching" a feeling from someone else.

The fact that we can trigger any emotion at all in someone else – or they in us – testifies to the powerful mechanism by which one person's feelings spread to another. Such contagions are the central transaction in the emotional economy, the give-and-take of feeling that accompanies every human encounter we have, no matter what the ostensible business at hand may be.

next ->