On shared emotional experiences

Written in September 2022

I remember where I was when I heard that Diana, the former Princess of Wales had died. I was sitting in the same room when I heard that the late HM Queen Elizabeth II had died. While I can remember these details, I don't feel that these events have had any significance in my life other than that they have happened during my lifetime. There's no significance imparted into my life from having been alive when they happened, however, and I have not become involved in the shared national emotional experience that seems to grasp the majority of the population.


My personal feelings on the monarchy are irrelevant here. I have had similar experiences when a celebrity dies and there appears to be a national outbreak of sentiment which I can't relate to or feel involved in. I understand that there are a variety of reasons someone might feel the emotions they feel about the passing of the Queen (or any other public figure) but I can't know, in each individual case, what their reasons are, or how deeply/authentically they feel the emotions. For example, I don't know whether everyone who feels sad does so because the emotion comes from within them, or because other people around them are feeling it, so it sort of “transfers” to them as well. Would everyone feel as sad if they were isolated from society when they heard and processed the news?

The simple fact is that the passing of public figures doesn't have any significant (or even insignificant) effect on my life. Nothing changes for me in practical terms, and I had no connection to the public figure that died regardless of whether I liked that person (or their public persona). The best I can do is acknowledge the significance of the event or the person on the wider community, but I don't ever feel part of that community – I can't feel and experience what they do.


Another instance that comes to mind is the performance of Max Richter's Infra at St. Mary's in Brighton over 10 years ago. During the performance I felt so moved by the music that I was crying. It was so beautiful and composed in such a way, that by using call-backs to earlier phrases in the work, you felt that it was coming from, or through you. The composition established such a connection with each individual audience member that it was impossible not to be moved.

At the end of the performance I looked around and nearly everyone else was in tears or had been crying. I don't know whether the other audience members felt they shared that emotional experience with the rest of the people there, but I felt only a flicker of that, perhaps even just the recognition that others had been similarly affected but not that we were sharing that experience with each other as a group.


I don't know if I will ever fully understand the nature of shared emotional experiences (especially those on a national scale) and I doubt I'll ever connect with one myself. That may make me seem unemotional or lacking in empathy, but this is patently untrue. When my dad died I did experience the loss, the grief and the mourning that happens when you lose a parent but I did often still feel that I was out of sync with the rest of the family and that my emoting, or lack thereof, was grating a little on the shared emotional experience others were having.


It's one of the hardest things to mask, really, because if you're openly not going with the crowd, people can become suspicious of you and treat you very differently because you are clearly not like them and/or incapable of experiencing emotion. It's like if you can't relate to these shared emotional experiences you must not be capable of feeling any emotion at all, which is seen as negative and suspicious by society. I don't think that is necessarily a true or fair assessment to make based purely on an inability to connect with shared emotional experiences in the way that others seem to, and seem to expect that everyone else does.


I think it is probably due to alexithymia, as a lack of connection to a shared emotional experience is similar in mechanism to a lack of connection with/recognition of one's own emotions and those of other individuals. It is made more noticeable when seemingly everyone around you is losing their heads and connecting into this large, shared emotional experience that you just can't be part of.


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