Free Press Journal

The infectious nature of emotions


Women laughing together on boat

One of the reasons for this infectious nature of emotions is empathy. When we see another human being feeling some emotions or experiencing anything, our brain creates the same feelings in our mind, writes DR SHRIRANG BAKHLE.

All of us have seen this: There is a group of people who are in a sombre, serious mood. It may be a group of people who have come to see a patient. Or it may be a group of office team members who are discussing some problem. Then a person – who is known to be jovial or enthusiastic– enters the room. S/he starts talking humorously or enthusiastically and everyone starts smiling. Everyone’s mood changes to happiness. It is as if the person has infected others with happiness!

Does it happen with only with happiness or with unhappiness (sadness, fear and anger), too? How does it happen? And how can we use this knowledge? All the emotions can be infectious. Consider this common scene. There is a small road accident e.g. a car dashing and denting another car. One of the two persons is cool and calm. But the other person is very angry. He keeps shouting angrily. Soon enough, the other person loses his cool and becomes angry, too. How did it happen?

Anger is always directed at some person. Anger leads to a wish for revenge, a wish to hurt the other person. So the angry person tries to hurt the other person – verbally (and in some cases, physically). But suppose, the other person is determined to be cool. So, the angry guy is unable to hurt the cool person. But the angry guy keeps hitting the other person – verbally or otherwise – till the other person gets offended and becomes angry. Thus the angry guy manages ‘to infect’ the other person with his anger.

One of the reasons for this infectious nature of emotions is empathy. There are some neurons in the brain called mirror neurons. When we see another human being feeling some emotions or experiencing anything, our brain creates the same feelings in our mind. This is the empathy in action. We commonly experience this when we watch movies – especially emotion-charged movies. For example, in a movie, we see a mother crying intensely while watching a tragedy happen to her daughter. We, too, start feeling sad. Almost everyone in the movie theatre starts feeling sad. Suppose the mother in the movie becomes intensely angry at the villain. Then the viewers, too feel her anger in their minds.

As in reel life, in real life, too, we find this type of infectious sadness. For example, suppose, there is a death in a family. Some of the family members are crying. Relatives and friends start coming to meet them. Before entering the house, the relatives / friends are calm. But when they enter the house and see the family members crying, they, too start crying. Thus the emotion of sadness spreads from person to person just like an infectious illness.

What is the use of knowing this infectious nature of the emotions? This knowledge helps us in understanding the interaction in both the directions: How others’ emotions can infect us and how our emotions can infect them. We can then use this knowledge to modify the interactions in a useful way.

For example, we find that one person in the family is very angry. By knowing the infectious nature of emotions, we can expect this person to infect other people in the family with anger. The best solution to this problem, of course, is ‘cooling down’ the angry person. But if this is not possible, we can actually try and keep a distance between the angry person and others. Perhaps we can try and takes the angry person out of the room. One other thing we can do, is to fortify the calmness of the people who are still calm. If we are unable to control this ‘epidemic’ of anger, soon everyone becomes angry and the situation can go out of control. Thus, understanding the infectious nature of emotions helps us to pre-empt and prevent ‘epidemics’!

On the other hand, we would like to start and spread an epidemic of happiness, isn’t it? Suppose there is a group of people in a housing society or a housing colony who are trying to make plans for some function. Somehow, everyone is in a dull mood. If you want, you can infuse enthusiasm in the group by becoming enthusiastic yourself. If you start talking enthusiastically and optimistically, soon others will catch the infection and will become enthusiastic!

In a party or other groups, you find people gathering around an enthusiastic or humorous person. This is because everyone would love to catch the infection from her or him!

Thus, by understanding this infectious nature of emotions, you may be able to prevent epidemics of unhappiness. On the other, you can spread an epidemic of happiness, humour and good cheer! All the best to you for that!