There’s a gap in perception that occurs when we are mindlessly caught up strong emotion. Though emotions are circumscribed and fleeting, when we’re in them they feel global and endless. Though emotions are based on constructs, when we are in them they feel like truth and it’s hard to remember that we’ve felt otherwise. Similarly, when we are calm or content, it’s hard for us to accurately recall what it was like when we were feeling something intensely. Mindfulness is a form of remembering – of coming back to the moment and coming home to ourselves. A dedicated mindfulness practice can help us bridge the emotion gap so that we can respond more compassionately and with greater wisdom.
On his program, Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam describes how “we become strangers to ourselves” when reacting mindlessly to strong emotions. The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap coined by George Loewenstein, explains that we are usually unaware of how much our emotions are driving our behavior when we are caught up in them. This quality also makes us less empathetic because we are unable to imagine how others actions might be hijacked by their own strong emotions. It’s both prospective and retrospective, self-referencing and reflective of others. This gap makes us inaccurate in our understanding of our own past behavior, in predicting our own future behavior, and in our judgments of others’ behavior.
Another interesting example involves research on neural pathways and friendships. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan subjects’ brains and were able to use the results to predict future friendship status of new acquaintances based on patterns of neural similarities. After a brief introduction, strangers were asked who they would like to get to know better. Their emotional judgments were less accurate predictors of future friendship than the fMRI data.
Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, teach us how to be with our strong emotions with greater equanimity so that we can see things more clearly and meet ourselves and others with greater compassion. Mindfulness can also create space to consider the complicated causes and conditions underlying our own and others’ choices and behavior. The formal practices are a training ground or a sort of exposure self-therapy, gradually building the skills and confidence needed to face life’s demands and challenges in ways that better support our highest values and collective wellbeing.
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
– Miller Williams From The Ways We Touch: Poems
Parkinson, C., Kleinbaum, A.M. & Wheatley, T. Similar neural responses predict friendship. Nat Commun 9, 332 (2018).
NPR (2019). The Future Friendship Machine: How a Machine Can Predict Who You Click With. Invisibilia, Season 5, Episode 12.