WEAVING A WEB
We live in difficult times and that affects our mood. In daily language, we refer to this as having negative emotions or being too emotional. But what are emotions exactly? What is their mechanism? What purpose do they serve? Why do we have these fluctuations of spirit?
Things that affect our mood
There is a long history of our views on emotions. As always man likes to categorize, and so, we inherited many theories dealing with questions like; whether a fixed set of basic emotions exists; how many emotions we can distinguish; if complex emotions are just more refined basic ones; or whether they are a composition of several of the basic ones. All those questions are, of course, open for opinion and discussion. If we skip the whole discussion about basic emotions, and how many of them we have, and jump into history somewhere halfway through the seventeenth century when the Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza made an important observation about our mood by making a distinction between emotions and feelings.
Spinoza held that emotions are basic reactions belonging to the body and hence we do have not much grip on that, but that feelings, on the other hand, are the domain of the mind and thus open for alterations. That was a bold statement and only now that modern science recognizes that so-called neuromodulators (like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine) more or less regulate those, much-discussed basic emotions we can finally congratulate Baruch, he was right, emotions are just bodily functions. Not only are neuromodulators substances functioning as mediators of human emotions, but they are the same in all living creatures down to the Drosophila, and if that sounds impressive to you, Drosophila is just a fruit fly.
It seems that the way the neuromodulators bring about a certain behavior is an old survival mechanism that slowly evolved from very basic fear and anger ( flight or fight) to more sophisticated ones like gloom or enthusiasm (to be passive or to engage). But then another question arises; now that we live our civilized lives will we forever be just slaves of these sophisticated substances, once useful for our survival, playing games in our brain making us alternatingly twist and squirm or being overly euphoric?
We come up short with a deeper significance for emotions in our modern life other than that we can enjoy the vehemence of the feelings emotions give, or suffer from them. Now that we know that emotions are just physical impulses to behave in a certain way, including specific facial expressions that reflect the corresponding emotions, and thanks to Spinoza, realize that we superimpose more or less refined thoughts on these emotions leading to more or less complicated feelings, where does this lead us to?
It is not a surprise that our world is full of tentatives to make something worthwhile out of our moods. Since we are always in a certain mood, we want to be in a good mood, don’t we? We want to be independent and follow Spinoza’s pointers. And since we know that the basic emotions themselves are beyond our reach except with drugs and psycho-pharmacy (which we do a lot), we strain ourselves to think positively, meditate, and be mindful, all in an enormous effort to feel good in the unavoidable presence of the unpredictable emotions.
Somewhere in the eighties, I came upon a book about acupuncture with the intriguing title The Web that has no Weaver. In antique Chinese medicine, a weblike structure of lines and points on our body is described. The problem of the weaver of this web is an intriguing question but more problematic for us rationalists is that nothing is to be found of this web in our physical bodies. Nonetheless, it represents a highlight in the cultural history of humans as a descriptive mapping of the connections of the universe, antique Chinese society, its inhabitants, an early idea of embodiment, and basic life functions. It is a great historic tentative to construct a “theory of everything”. Interestingly in the characteristics of these so-called ‘acupuncture points’ (each one having a complicated name referring to nature), we find a description of feelings. Not just emotions, as one would expect for a medical system, but complicated feelings up to certain dreams. Can we recreate something like that in our modern society alongside and in harmony with modern science? For this endeavor, I propose to identify the weaver as us humans and shift the mystery towards the web. Hence the title of this article.
Weaving a Web.
In our lives, we accumulate memories of our moods under all kinds of circumstances. These memories are, as we now know a mix of emotions and feelings. Emotions are identical in all living creatures, as we discussed, but feelings, that is the addition of thoughts to emotions, are highly individual and unique. Our life story is like a novel, all the elements are common stuff, but the arrangement (the web) is unique.
The general approach to the individual collection of these memories is to simplify them to a summarising description that we slowly start to repeat and finally identify as characteristic of our personality. A thoughtful bloke, a sad employee, an angry young man, a fearful widow, etc. In my practice when I ask a new patient to describe himself we are finished very quickly, after two or three minutes of very common traits, I always hear “That is all I can tell about myself.”
I was wondering if there is a way for us to weave a web in our feelings just as the antique Chinese medical web was woven. Can we organize our experiences, as directive lines, with specific impact points and meaningful connections just as rich and ingenious as the classical Chinese map?
When I think about my life, without trying to characterize myself as we are used to and just described, for example, “a joyful chap” but instead looking for impact points from a certain perspective (analogous to an acupuncture “meridian”, an imaginary line with points that share the same class of traits) I can, for example, try to remember all the moment’s someone helped me in a way that made an impression. This is a great exercise and when doing it a row of faces extending into the past emerges.
In the same way, we can try to remember when we helped or influenced someone and how we did that. One night I had a strange dream: I was sitting in a chair on the beach on the Spanish coast. Instead of having a medical clinic, I was now the older owner of a ‘chiringuito’ (open-air food place, usually cheap and run down) on the coast where we prepared and served fried fish. It is late and we are closing when a group of rather noisy customers arrives. They look for chairs and tables, that I partly had started to store for the night. One woman does not find a chair, and I rise from my chair to bring it to her. She takes it without much attention but is relieved to sit down. I retire and sit down again on the site of the tavern. A great sense of fulfillment and gratitude fills my heart. I remember waking up and thinking full surprise if that servitude was a deeper wish to change my life.
We can do these soul-searching exercises in several ways; we can try to remember places of influence, art, or literature that moved us, work that inspired us, nature, science, the seasons, food, and many more aspects of life. It is one of the strategies I employ in therapy and instead of the three-minute summary slowly our inner richness starts to reveal itself. Thus the patiënt weaves an invisible web, along certain personal directive lines. The strength of this model is that we can create a highly private structure in our mind, without any exterior design or theory of personality traits imposed, nor thinking about affective disorders and all other classifications that can harm the image of the self. In this personal web we can then give meaning to the emotions, how the emotions gave us certain tendencies, when they were useful, and when not, we give the emotions a ‘personality’ within our story.
The internal life of every individual is much richer than we in general acknowledge. Not only do we have a sad tendency to oversimplify when estimating others, but we are also on the receiving end of oversimplifications about ourselves and sometimes cannot avoid internalizing these views. In mental health there is the same tendency, all diagnostic categories are problematic oversimplifications and even if correct reflect only a fraction of someone’s psyche.
When thinking about ourselves, our society, and our lives it is essential to move away from simplifications and generalizations, instead, the search in the richdom of details and small moments of significance has become an urgent necessity.
Illustration: Vija Celmins (American, born in Riga, Latvia, 1938). Web 2, 2000. Mezzotint, (45.7 x 37.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John B. Turner Fund, 2001 (2001.388). © 2010 Vija Celmins