The idea that emotions can spread from person to person is not new. But recent research is starting to uncover the physiological mechanisms behind such “emotional contagion.” A study published this month (May 9) in Psychological Science, for example, showed that infants dilate or contract their pupils in response to depictions of eyes with the corresponding state, suggesting that emotional contagion may develop early in life. A 2014 study found that mothers could pass emotional stress on to their babies in a largely unconscious way. Together, the findings add to a growing body of research revealing the role of this phenomenon in human interactions.“One of the most important things as a human species is to communicate effectively,” said Garriy Shteynberg, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has shown that emotional contagion is enhanced in group settings. In order to do that, “we need cognitive mechanisms that give us a lot of common background knowledge,” Shteynberg told The Scientist.
Our old friends synchrony and the default network:
The most popular model, developed by social psychologist Elaine Hatfield and colleagues, suggests that people tend to synchronize their emotional expressions with those of others, which leads them to internalize those states. This suggests, for example, that the act of smiling can make a person feel happiness.As to what may be going on in the brain when this happens, some research suggests that emotional contagion may engage the default mode network—a set of brain circuits that are active when an individual is not engaged in any particular task, but may be thinking about his or herself or others, noted Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University. When this network is activated, a person may be picking up on emotional cues from others, he told The Scientist. And “the speed at which you pick it up is probably the most important issue going on,” as it suggests that this process is largely unconscious, Boyatzis said.
Students of literary culture, and broadcast media, take note. I'm particularly interested in the case of story-telling in preliterate cultures, which is, after all, the default situation for human story telling. Here the stories are well known and people absorb them in the company of others. That's very different from reading a book in the privacy of one's home.