This blog post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in a few weeks.
Without the exchange of emotion, and the ability to understand the intent of other people, communication becomes, if not impossible, at least far more difficult. People with autism apparently experience something very like this. It’s what I experienced for a number of months when I was seventeen, as I described in my previous book Power Cues. A brain injury had temporarily disabled my unconscious ability to read other people’s emotions in the same instant way that most humans can.
What I learned was that, without human connection via unconscious emotions, we live in a void. And from my further experiences recovering from that brain injury, I can tell you that when you take away the emotional connection, not only does it become difficult to understand other people, but the whole project of life seems less interesting, less engaging, and less important. While my brain recovered, I drifted, unable to take my normal interest in the things going on around me and my seventeen-year-old (damaged) brain.
In fact, that doesn’t go far enough. It’s difficult to convey how lost I felt. The world was a black and white movie that used to be in color. I was an alien watching everyone else communicate and not understanding what I was missing. For those six months or so, I was completely unable to understand what other people were thinking, feeling and doing. They were mysteries, and the key to understanding them had been hidden, so I didn’t even know where to start.
Mirror neurons enable us to understand and entertain another person’s point of view or another person’s pain. Without mirror neurons, negotiating successfully with other people is more difficult, if not impossible, because it’s hard to engage in sympathetically understanding the other party’s emotions. You can’t decide how important one bargaining chip or another is. You can’t tell whether the other side is bluffing. You can’t gauge where everybody is on the issues.
That’s the virtual world, a good deal of the time. What’s missing is the human emotional connection. Taking it out makes communication infinitely more difficult.
And we can get a little more specific. Some emotions are more contagious than others—the most basic ones: anxiety, fear, happiness and joy. Take away the empathy, and these emotions are the first to fall. The reasons most likely have to do with the basic hardwired questions we humans ask ourselves, questions that are highly dependent on our unconscious minds, a quick read, and empathy.
What happens in the virtual world when you make experiencing these basic emotions and sharing them—more difficult? Anxiety and fear top the list of emotions that get lost. But we replace them with remembered anxieties and fears because that’s our default state. Negative emotions exist to keep us out of trouble and, once we’re in trouble, to help us escape it as fast as possible. Dull the fight-or-flight response, and you dull your survival abilities. So when those are stripped out, our minds put them back in, assuming the worst at all times.
Next up are happiness and joy, with the triggers of laughter and smiling. Take those out, and life and work become a lot less interesting and a lot less fun.
Finally, there’s attraction. Take out love and friendship, and it becomes much more difficult to get anything done.
The result? Misunderstandings, miscommunications, and worse: no trust, no credibility. Trolling. The state of the virtual world is tension-filled, ready to go negative, and assuming the worst at all times.