Recently one of our readers, "Melissa", left a startling comment about the concept of "emotional contagion", something I'm embarrassed to say I'd never ever heard of until now. But I'm quickly making up for lost time.
According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, it would appear that modern psychology has finally caught on to something that many of us have taken for granted for a long time now - that unpleasant emotional states can be transferred and caught like a disease, or like barnacles that adhere to a ship and must be scraped off regularly. It's just very surprising to me to hear such things openly espoused by medical professionals now. On one hand, I'm excited that they've made such progressive strides into territory previously explored only by the bravest thinkers; on the other hand, given my general distrust of the pill-pushers in the "mental health" industry, I have to wonder if this isn't leading up to something ugly.
Be that as it may, here's what Wikipedia says about emotional contagion, and I'm all ears:
"Vittorio Gallese posits that mirror neurons are responsible for intentional attunement in relation to others. Gallese and colleagues at the University of Parma found a class of neurons in the premotor cortex that discharge when macaque monkeys execute goal-related hand movements or when they watch others doing the same action. One class of these neurons fires with action execution and observation, and with sound production of the same action. Research in humans shows an activation of the premotor cortex and parietal area of the brain for action perception and execution. Gallese continues his dialogue to say humans understand emotions through a simulated shared body state. The observers' neural activation enables a direct experiential understanding. "Unmediated resonance" is a similar theory by Goldman and Sripada (2004)."
"Unlike cognitive contagion, emotional contagion is less conscious and more automatic. It relies mainly on non-verbal communication, although it has been demonstrated that emotional contagion can, and does, occur via telecommunication. For example, people interacting through E-mails and "chats" are affected by the other's emotions, without being able to perceive the non-verbal cues."
"Given that emotions function to help humans adapt to social situations it makes sense that one person's emotion would affect another's. Just as herd animals would benefit from rapidly passing messages about risk and reward, emotional contagion seems to be adaptive for humans to function in groups. This system can enable a rapid communication of opportunity and risk, mediate a group interaction, and help humans attend to social rules and norms such as maintaining harmonious interaction with a powerful ally".
But the real kicker to all of this comes in the part where the article discusses emotional detachment, and lists it as a solution to avoid negative emotional contagion. There are two kinds of emotional detachment, it says: the involuntary kind, which is not good since it essentially is an inability to relate or communicate; and the second kind, the good kind, which is:
"...a positive and deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others. It is often applied to relatives and associates of people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding. A simple example might be a person who trains himself to ignore the "pleading" food requests of a dieting spouse. A more widespread example could be the indifference parents develop towards their children's begging. It is not to be confused with being wilfully cold or unpleasant, because it is a positive mental attitude. Of course, the decision as to whether emotional detachment in any given set of circumstances is considered to be a positive or negative mental attitude is a subjective one, and therefore a decision on which different people may not agree.
This detachment does not mean avoiding the feeling of empathy; it is actually more of an awareness of empathetic feelings that allows the person space needed to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings."
Thank you. The defense rests, your honor.