Emotional Contagion Is a Mixed Bag

In 2008, my husband fell backward down a flight of stairs and suffered a brain injury. When I brought him home from rehab three months later, he was childlike and often confused. He sank into a deep depression—and I caught it from him.

Researchers have documented many times over that human emotions can be as contagious as a winter cold. Emotional contagion can be a good thing if you come down with someone else’s joy or excitement but a bad one if you catch their distress, as I did.

We understand what other people are feeling in a number of different ways. Sometimes they tell us, or we can guess from their situation, or we imagine how we’d feel in their place. But primitive emotional contagion happens on a deeper level.

When you’re paying attention to someone, you unconsciously mimic that person’s facial expressions, posture and gestures. And in many ways—subtle and often very slight—you move in synchrony with your companion’s words: if you’re tapping a finger or simply blinking your eyes, those miniscule motions will pick up the rhythm of his or her speech, and when you reply, you’re likely to echo its tone and tempo. None of this is noticeable when you’re involved in a conversation, but scientists who record it can see it in films or videos when they’re run in slow motion.

We mimic without being aware of it, and as we do that, we experience the other person’s emotions to some degree.

Looking back, I’m sure that when my husband and I were together, I slumped, frowned, spoke more slowly than I usually did and otherwise replicated his body language—and as I mirrored the ways he was expressing his depression, I felt just about as bad as he did.

Primitive emotional contagion seems to affect most humans and some animals too. It’s a crucial component of empathy. I can imagine the role it played in evolution: sensing someone else’s feelings helps you anticipate what they’re likely to do, and that’s a survival skill if there ever was one.

But while my husband struggled with depression, I often wished I could somehow immunize myself against his misery. My unhappiness, reflecting his, wasn’t doing either of us any good.

A book I read recently brought all of this back. In Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening (2016), John Elder Robison reveals what it’s like to be immune to emotional contagion—and then to lose that immunity.

Robison is on the autism spectrum, and like many on the spectrum, he’s well aware of his own feelings but blind to the emotions telegraphed by all but the most obvious facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. He writes, “I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer.…There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.”

Robison’s world changed when he agreed to participate in a groundbreaking study conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The experimenters placed a powerful electromagnet next to his head and used it to stimulate his brain, hoping to turn on his ability to respond to other people’s emotional cues. The procedure is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Within hours of his first treatment, Robison’s “social blindness,” as he called it, began to lift. He found that he could understand facial expressions and register the nuances in people’s voices when they were being sarcastic. TMS had awakened that primitive ability to share the emotions of others.

He was thrilled—but also at times overwhelmed. He writes that as he was surrounded by a small crowd at work, “the emotions I was sensing went from a trickle to an overwhelming torrent … feeling each person’s hope, fear, excitement and worry was just as disabling as being blind to it.… Most of the emotions floating around in space are not positive.”

As Robison changed, it created a problem in his marriage. His wife was deeply depressed much of the time. He’d always known that was true and had been sympathetic—sorry she felt so downhearted. But now he was soaking up her deep distress. He recalls that “when I was at home with her, I felt like I was being crushed beneath the weight of her depression.…When I went elsewhere, the weight lifted.”

Once Robison’s TMS treatments stopped, he gradually lost much of his new ability to read other people’s emotions. But some of that response remained, and it changed most of his relationships for the better. His marriage, however, was a casualty of the research.

Despite the many studies of emotional contagion, nobody seems to have come up with a surefire way to avoid catching negative emotions—other than to avoid the person who’s having them. The tactics some social scientists have suggested are pretty much the same ones recommended for relieving any kind of stress: exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, confide in people you’re close to, take a break whenever you can, and so on.

In my case, some obvious things were helpful. Our doctor prescribed anti-depressants for both my husband and me; I saw a therapist for a while; our daughter came to stay with her father at times so I could get away. It was also a great help that, after a while, I recalled what I’d read about emotional contagion and figured out where much of my own depression came from. That enabled me to see our situation more objectively.

I made a major effort to be sympathetic and mostly cheerful. My husband rarely seemed to catch my positive emotions, but at least my distress no longer added to his. Most of all, I stopped feeling as if my own emotional state was out of control.

My husband died—from another fall—six months after I brought him home from rehab. He’s been gone for nearly 10 years now. Before his head injury, he was almost always optimistic, energetic and outgoing. For the 37 years we were married, it was his joy and enthusiasm that were contagious. As I remember him now, that’s what comes back to me most clearly.