You may well have questions concerning Michael’s approach to emotion. You’re not alone – here are responses to the ‘top ten’ questions commonly posed. If you have a different question yourself, please email Michael for a response: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. When you talk about things like migraine, déjà vu, PTSD, phantom pain, these are caused by brain activity, are they not? So how do feelings enter into it?
All of those conditions – and many more – involve brain activity but aren’t caused by brain activity. Put another way, the brain registers what we feel but the raw material of feeling is what generates these states. Think of a conductor leading an orchestra, which is basically what the brain is. If there were no instruments, there’d be no sound. And unlike an orchestra, our ‘feeling’ instrumentation doesn’t need a conductor to get it going. It plays the way it plays.
Consider feeling as a melody that flows. That melody can go higher, lower, faster, slower, sweeter, darker…you get the idea. Each feeling you have is like a melody. The way that melody plays out, the other melodies it interacts with…whether there’s harmony or discord, whether the music is audible or inaudible, whether the whole melody plays out or gets cut off…this is the way feeling plays out in what I like to call your ‘bodymind.’ Because your brain and your body aren’t separate, neither are your thoughts and your feelings. But, again, the feeling part of it is paramount.
3. How can you possibly relate phenomena as different as autism, synesthesia, savantism, child prodigies, and children who remember past lives? Is ‘sensitivity’ truly so compelling that all these can be looked at through a single lens?
In a word, yes. Let’s start with what all human beings – indeed, all living organisms – have in common. We’re all individuals. Our bodies are bounded, so we can distinguish inside from outside, me from you. We’re also all sensate to one degree or another. We can ascertain if something is bothering us and whether that stimulus is coming from inside or outside. This is what we mean by sensitivity. Now, consider how sensitivity is dictated by feelings: “this feels good, that feels bad, this other thing feels sort of in-between, this other thing feels completely different, hmm, what is that?” Feelings are so fundamental to who are as individuals.
The closer we look at conditions like autism, synesthesia, savantism, child prodigies, children who remember past lives, and so many other conditions and states – the more we realize that the people affected are very different from the run-of-the-mill person. And consider that word I just used, affected. Affect means feeling. These types of people are affected differently by feelings. I mean the biology and physiology of feelings, the genetics and how they’re triggered. The flow of feeling, the melody, works differently in them – which is characteristic of the given state or condition.
It’s simply fascinating, and the door is open to learn much more about all these ‘different’ kinds of people…how they become that way, and how they perceive and experience life.
4. You suggest in the book that animals have feelings much like our own. How can we possibly know that?
Let’s start with the fact that we’re animals, too. Just because we have a bigger brain or more highly developed language or technology doesn’t disguise the fact that we need to eat and drink and digest and poop. Or that we like to have a safe place to call home, and fellow creatures that we can hang out with and love. So, recognizing these similarities, we can also recognize very often that other animals have what appear to be similar feelings. Charles Darwin was fascinated by this; he wrote a book called The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. He believed that emotions had evolved across many species to carry out basically the same function – which is, you might say, to indicate how things are going. How are you doing, what’s affecting you, what needs to change? These are all things that animals tell themselves, and tell one another, by virtue of emotion.
It’s quite possible, btw, that some animals have shades of feeling that we don’t have ourselves. Some researchers have speculated that, because other animals don’t refract their feelings through language and cogitation as we do, they may have a ‘purer’ or more intense experience of their world. I call this “living closer to the bone,” and it’s interesting to speculate.
5. Is it reasonable to examine so many different kinds of physical/mental conditions – like migraine, PTSD, and synesthesia – and then bring in subjects like out of body experience and recollections of someone’s past life? Isn’t that mixing way too large a stew?
No, the stew gets more interesting and tastier the more ingredients you consider. As I said before, the key is to look at groups of very different kinds of individuals and try to learn what distinguishes them. Given that feelings are what power us – they’re the ‘melodies’ we play – it makes sense to examine how the flow of feelings might be different in one condition than another. PTSD is a perfect example. There are actually 2 kinds of PTSD: a high reactive and a low reactive kind. The one person has a very different experience of PTSD than another. The high reactive person knows without a doubt that something or other is wrong – they can’t ignore it and neither can anyone else. But the low reactive person dissociates; that is, they basically mute the feelings, send them underground. So they go into a funk, and they can’t put their finger on what’s wrong.
The closer we look at out-of-body experience, at near-death experience, at people who experience ghosts or apparitions, the more we stand to learn about what it means to be a feeling, embodied human being. That’s why it’s a grievous mistake to laugh at people who report these kinds of things. Science needs to take this stuff seriously. We simply don’t know what we don’t yet know.
To their credit, almost every researcher I’ve contacted or sounded out about my thesis has been either receptive or reasonably open-minded. I’m talking about neuroscientists, geneticists, immunologists, animal behaviorists, neuropsychologists, pain researchers, synesthesia researchers, cognitive philosophers and, yes, parapsychologists. I think they realize that the pattern in recent years is for conditions that science once sloughed off – chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, or irritable bowel syndrome, even synesthesia – turn out to be demonstrably real. More than that, we’ve gathered how much there is to learn about people who have those conditions. So science has earned the right to be humble, in my estimation.
I’m no Johnny-or-Jill-come-lately. I’ve been studying these matters since the mid-1990s, when I was working on indoor air quality issues in tandem with the EPA, and became fascinated by how some people would be more affected by “sick building syndrome” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” than others. I developed my concept of environmental sensitivity then, and my ideas about the role of emotion followed.
In the past 15 years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with an amazing guy, a physician and medical anthropologist named Marc Micozzi. We published 2 books together: The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion, which came out in 2009, and Your Emotional Type, which followed in 2011. I went on to blog for Psychology Today and, in recent years, have been published by Scientific American and elsewhere. Over that entire time I’ve reached out to literally hundreds of scientists and researchers in various fields. I’ve constantly challenged my own view of things through these exchanges. Like any good theory, my theory of emotion is just that – a concept where we see if the evidence fits the model. So far – 25 years on – I believe the evidence is solid. So the idea of emotion as a fundamental binding force becomes all the more intriguing.
8. Animals seem to run on instinct. How can you reasonably compare emotion or brain function in a human being with emotion or brain function in a wild (even a domestic) animal?
Again, human beings are animals. And our brain’s emotional architecture is remarkably similar to that of other mammals. The leading neurobiologist who investigated emotion across species, the late Jaak Panksepp (who I corresponded with) said the following: “All mammals are brothers and sisters under the skin.” Panksepp is remembered as the guy who tickled rats and found that they emit ultrasonic chirps a lot like our laughter. The more we study other animals, the more we find we have in common. For example, baby monkeys deprived of their mothers’ touch become anxious and clingy…elephants who’ve been traumatized experience PTSD…and many species appear to mourn the loss of family members and friends. Just by observing our own dogs, cats, and birds, we can see that they’re individuals with distinct temperaments. All of this is why Panksepp believed that, as we come to know the nature of other animals’ feelings, we will better understand ourselves.
9. Some people believe we have an immortal soul and others say that’s BS. Where do you come down in the argument? And, what do feelings have to do with it?
You’ve heard the phrase “fellow feeling”? My view is that the feelings we have for other people – and for animals and nature – are what make us soulful. Think about it. A computer can’t have soul because it has no feelings. But we who can express emotion – who can empathize with others – we’re soulful. Now, not everyone is all the time. Big corporations, for instance, are not known for their caring; we call them “soulless.” But the words and gestures that move us, that reflect our deepest feelings and values – they embody soul. As long as we’re alive and expressing our feelings, I believe we have soul. What happens when we’re gone? That I don’t know.
10. People who say they’re psychic or believe in past lives strike me as weird. Why do you give them the time of day in this book?
It’s not so much what people say or believe…it’s what they experience. Every person’s experience is different. We all perceive in somewhat different ways, some people in much different ways. If someone is having a migraine headache, or is in the throes of PTSD, or grappling with irritable bowel or chronic fatigue, or is in a prolonged funk because of depression, or says “That’s weird, I just had déjà vu,” we kind of understand what they’re going through. But if a person literally feels someone else’s pain (which is called mirror synesthesia), or if they become obsessed with art or music – to the point that they can’t turn off the torrent of images or sounds – we’re at a loss. And we’re even more at a loss if someone sees energy or colors around people, or they sense an apparition, or if they’re convinced they lived someone else’s life in the past. My point is that all of these things are strange. Why should we write off one person’s experience just because it’s so different from our own?
I’ve long said that, if science is going to make progress, we need to take people’s perceptions seriously. There’s so much to learn! Emotion, to me, is the touchstone to make that progress.