When Ramana Maharshi said, “There are no others,” he was expressing the essence of nonduality. Today scientists are exploring the boundaries between Self and Others and unsurprisingly, they are finding the all wondrous ways in which we are not separate.
This interconnectedness was explored recently in an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia. The show looked at the many ways in which our lives — and our very being — are entangled, like two atoms separated by a large distance, but still intimately affected by the other.
One way in which we are connected with others is the way we act and feel. Many people walk around thinking that their actions and emotions arise entirely from within — from somewhere in the brain, caused by a series of physiological events. But the truth is we are like giant radio receivers, picking up the signals put out by others and imitating them.
You may have already noticed that if you spend any amount of time around other people, you might adjust your posture or speech patterns to mimic theirs. Sometimes it’s something less obvious, like how quickly you blink or breathe.
Over time, you may start to match your actions with theirs and all without conscious control.
“Whether you want to or not, all day long, you are engaged in a kind of synchronized dance with the people you come into contact with,” said Lulu Miller, co-host of Invisibilia.
For some people, this mimicry can be more extreme — they actually feel what they see other people feeling. If someone else receives a hug, they feel that hug. If they watch people eating, they feel food in their mouth, even though they themselves are not eating.
Scientists have studied people like this — who have a condition called mirror-touch synesthesia — and found that essentially the wires of their visual system and touch system are crossed. This gives them a deep connection with other people.
But these people also have less gray matter in the part of the brain that helps them distinguish self from other. For them, “there are no others” is a physiological state of their brain.
But all of us experience this kind of effect to some degree. And it can even bleed over into other, more subtle aspects of our personality like our emotions.
Some emotions show up on our face as a broad smile or a creased forehead. But our faces also leak out much smaller, micro-expressions that signal things like happiness, anxiety and depression.
When we pick up on the micro-expressions of other people, we unconsciously imitate their facial expressions. From that, we start to develop the same emotions — building them from the outside in.
“We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling,” said Elaine Hafield, a psychological researcher from the University of Hawaii, on the show.
This is the ripple effect caused by our emotions, passing from one person to the next like a contagion. Until we are all connected — was never really a question in the first place.
Or as Miller explains: “It’s like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.”