Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on stimuli and emotions

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Watching a horror piece*, a few similar phenomena with, I suspect, a common explanation are brought to my mind.

*The “Black Mirror’ episode “Playtest”.

Specifically, I* often experience a build-up of emotions, emotional reactions, and whatnot, where a (for want of a better word) stimulus initially has little impact, but eventually becomes something major. This would be well explained by assuming that certain (again, for want of a better word) channels of the mind, likely with a physiological** background, are continually drained by some mechanism, much like the drain in a basin. When a small stimulus is present, the equivalent of a slightly opened faucet, then the basin remains more-or-less empty, because the drain swallows the water almost immediately. When the faucet is opened wider, the basin will have some water in it, but the amount will be more-or-less fixed***, because the drain still swallows it all, at roughly the same rate as it enters, but there might be some time before any given water particle is swallowed. When the faucet is opened wider yet, the drain will eventually not swallow the water at a sufficient rate and the amount of water will increase until the basin overflows (unless a secondary drain comes to the rescue, as is the case with most modern basins, but not necessarily the human mind).

*I suspect most others too, but I can only actually speak for myself.

**The exact nature is beyond my speculation as my knowledge of e.g. brain physiology has never moved beyond the informed layman’s and my latest readings are a good many years behind me. I do note, however, that some set of this-and-that receptors, re-uptake, etc. would make a decent fit.

***I.e. we still have an equilibrium, or something close to it.

Consider e.g.:

  1. Watching a (scary, non-laughable, non-splatter) horror movie and how the tension and anxiety, even fear, felt increases until the viewer wishes to take a break or otherwise relieve the tension (also cf. below)—and how a short break can make watching a few more minutes that much easier, until the tension has built to the critical level again. This, while a longer interruption, e.g. to write a discussion relating to horror movies,* can lead to a much greater respite before the tension becomes critical again. Of course, in all three cases (continued watching, short break, long break) the actual movie remains the same.

    *However, the aforementioned “Playtest” is not that bad. The situation of the protagonist, in universe, is repeatedly truly horrifying even by a horror-movie standards, but the viewer has it easier than with many other works, as there is a fair amount of comic relief and relief through threats that turn out to be harmless, and at least some of the episode is less horror and more “meta-horror” and the usual “Black Mirror” investigations into consequences of technology. Besides, this is a second watching. (Now, “Alien” or “The Blair Witch Project” on a first watching …)

    Similarly, the increasing fear that I have experienced during prolonged times close to potential falls. I am afraid of heights, but usually in a controllable manner. However, I can e.g. recall how I once was in a museum looking down on a few very large statues from several floors up for, possibly, ten minutes. By the end, the originally weak fear had risen so close to a panic that I had to move away, unable to take the anxiety any longer.

  2. The increasing mirth when watching a good sit-com, where the first joke or humorous situation might bring a smile or a giggle, while similarly funny portions bring a stronger and stronger reaction, until the point of major laughter is reached. Here too, on rare occasions, I can wish for an outright break, e.g. by putting an episode on pause for a little while. This in part because any further jokes might prolong the laughter and the positive feeling, but not* make it stronger, implying that it is better to take a break, to let the metaphorical water level sink a bit, and only then continue for a new build-up; in part, because it becomes hard to simultaneously laugh and pay attention to what happens on the screen.

    *Or, if it could, possibly to a degree where the situation, literally, became unhealthy.

  3. The increasing annoyance caused by a continuing disturbance, which goes from a triviality* to a horror as it continues, on and on and on and on. In my case, with sufficiently long disturbances, they can even cause rage. Compatible with the metaphor, I have also found that anger surfaces much more rapidly on days when I have already been angry, often through such a disturbance, e.g. in that I have a first understandable anger because someone has ruined my sleep by raising hell at 6:30 in the morning** and that I have a second anger over something much more trivial later in the morning, e.g. because I prepped my coffee maker before showering, but forgot to turn it on. (Something, which would normally just give me a brief moment of disappointment.)

    *After it first enters the realm of awareness. The pre-awareness time is probably usually fairly short, but it might involve some other mechanism than the “faucet and drain”.

    **Unfortunately, not a fictitious example. This has happened quite often the last few weeks, complemented by several past-midnight incidents and quite a lot of odd stomping, hammering, and whatnot during the days. That the anger, understandably, grows worse with every occurrence is probably yet another mechanism. (Yes, I try to apply stoic principles, but it is not that easy in the moment.)

It seems likely to me that the channels are not entirely separate and/or that the conscious mind can be distracted from one channel to another. Consider e.g. comic relief* in the case of a horror movie—a sudden joke will not only reduce the anxiety from the scary parts, it will also typically have a much stronger humorous effect than the same joke would have in a less stressful situation. (The phenomenon of “nervous laughter” is likely related.) Or consider the rare works of fiction that manage to hit a spot where the viewer/reader/whatnot is simultaneously laughing and crying**: I hardly ever experience it, but it is an immense feeling on those rare occasions.

*Disclaimer: It is possible that I slightly misuse the term here, but my meaning should be clear.

**Due to a very sad (or very happy) situation—not because the laughter has grown strong enough to cause tears in its own right.

More speculatively, I could see a connection with mood swings. For instance, I have the subjective impression that I am more prone to a strong negative reaction when I am on a (positive) emotional high, e.g. after having watched a particularly funny sit-com. Say that I hit my elbow on something: when I am in a neutral mood, my reaction tends to be an equally neutral “that was painful”, but when I am in a strongly negative or positive mood, the reaction is likely to be in the fuck-this-piece-of-a-shit-of-an-object direction.

Looking at autism*, just assuming that autists/aspies/whatnot have a smaller drain (or a smaller basin) would go a long way to explain many differences in behaviors and preferences relative NTs, in that they are, in reality, not that different, but happen to be triggered by a different level of stimulus, be it through a difference in magnitude or duration. Even the likely most stereotypical** behavior, flapping, appears to be more a matter of exceeding some level of excitement or anxiety than anything specifically autistic. For instance, some type of flapping is regularly used in animes*** to indicate exactly extreme excitement—but not autism. On the contrary, it seems much more common in everyday outgoing high-school girls than in even introverted high-school boys. (The boys, those hentai-kuns, appear to be more prone to nose-bleeds, however.)

*I am a suspected aspie.

**Possibly unfairly: I have no recollection of flapping myself and have only very, very rarely seen another suspected non-NT flap (and I worked for two decades in the software industry).

***It might, conceivably, be a trait shared by autists and the Japanese, but that seems less likely.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 19, 2020 at 8:39 pm

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  1. […] on built-up tension, etc.: As an extension to an earlier text, I note that any fit of anger leaves me more prone to have another fit of anger in the course of […]

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