Have you ever noticed that an emotional state seems to feed upon itself? Anger, for example: something your cat does, like walking behind that vase on the top book shelf, causing it to wobble (and you to panic), really ticks you off. So you’re there in a helpless rage, and you begin to think about all the other annoying things he does (and he seems to know exactly what annoys you), and pretty soon you are thinking of everything the cat does that makes you angry, and you’re getting angrier and angrier by the minute.
In domestic relationships, such experiences lead to what one popular psychologist called "the kitchen sink" argument: a person and their spouse get into a tiff about some minor incident or habit, and instead of settling that issue and letting it go, one is reminded of other incidents that have aroused the same anger. "And another thing," they begin, and soon they’ve thrown "everything but the kitchen sink" at their partner, relating all the times they’ve felt the same kind of anger.
Anger, like other emotions, causes specific bodily sensations. Very likely the sensations are the result of particular electro-chemical changes in the body, the release of certain hormones, and those changes come to be recognized by the person not individually but collectively as "anger." We feel angry. Or we feel sad.
Our memories are stimulated by similarities. We re-cognize a familiar face. We re-member an old melody. Our brain makes connections—synapses—and similar connections create patterns. Pattern recognition is one of the most basic of our mental faculties. Sometimes the patterns we recognize are completely out of our awareness, but our brains are busily comparing this situation or sensation with others, looking for similarities so that it can organize our experiences into coherent life.
When those similarities are perceived, even on an unconscious level, all of the individual elements become more readily available to our consciousness. That particular shade of pink in the wallpaper reminds us of another, seemingly unrelated experience from a long time ago, perhaps a woman who often wore that shade of lipstick. Odors, because they are often indescribable in words, have an especially strong effect on our memory without being cluttered by rational processes. That shade of lipstick reminds us of her perfume, and that reminds us of an emotional scene the day she left. Our noticing the wallpaper in a room reminds us of her, and of our pain. Wallpaper makes us sad.
So much of our daily experience is non-verbal. If we try hard, we can often put words to our experiences so that we can describe them to someone else. But the other person may not have the same felt sense stimulated by our words, so that even though they hear us and understand what we are saying, they don’t get the same emotional experience. On the other hand, a good novelist or poet or musician can remind us of familiar feelings by creating familiar patterns in our sensations.
There’s a whole language that we develop inside our brains and bodies, a language that’s unique to us, that can only be approximated when we try to communicate with others. My shade of sky blue reminds me of a particular sky, on a particular day, with a particular person—and a particular emotional situation. Your "sky blue" stimulates a totally different memory in you.
So, when we suddenly feel an emotion—anger, sadness, happiness, fear—that seems irrelevant to the current situation, it may be helpful to explore the other contexts of that emotion. Very likely there’s a pattern. It may have nothing to do with what’s going on now, but it is flavoring the current experience. An emotional resonance.
"I don’t like that person. I don’t know why. Something about the way he combs his hair." That person is emotionally crossed off my list of potential friends. Or trusted associates. Whether we want to or not, we react to people and experiences—we even perceive differently—because of subtle chemical changes in our bodies, and dusty old synapses, buried deep beneath our consciousness. Perhaps a lot of psychotherapy involves trying to untangle the mess of yarn that we call our minds.
Back in the 1970s a book entitled "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg," by Joseph Chilton Pearce, posed the idea that we are born with a very close relationship to the universe, but are taught to ignore that relationship and instead pay attention to the people around us. We slowly absorb the assumptions of our culture and its language, and lose touch with that original "taste" of reality. Now, it’s well that we do that; since we have to live in our culture, we need the tools to survive in it. Most of those tools come to us through language—words and syntax. ("Syntax," you remember, means "pattern.") A noted anthropologist once said that a chimpanzee cannot be a chimpanzee alone; it needs the company (and the culture) of other chimpanzees. The same must be true of humans. We are human because we grow and live among humans. We feel the things that other people feel, due to the words that we share to describe those feelings.
But I can’t help but think that there’s more to us than we know—that is, than we have words for. When I try to be aware of the felt sense of anger, I’m at a loss for words. If I could identify the particular sensations, perhaps I could avoid the trap of calling a feeling "anger" and then being reminded of all the other "angers" in my life. Maybe this situation is unique after all. Maybe my life could be vastly richer, if only I could pay closer attention. Just as in listening to a piece of music over and over, maybe I could begin to discern the subtleties that are there, right in front of my face, that I have overlooked all these years.
January 31, 2002