Photo: Holly Lindem
Virginia is a medical researcher who came to see me in a last-ditch attempt to deal with overwhelming negative emotions that tended to beset her at work. She liked her job, but when she interacted with certain colleagues, she was flooded with anxiety, sadness, indignation and other inexplicable feelings. Virginia was sure those reactions came from her own neuroses, but therapy hadn't fixed the problem. After talking to her for half an hour, I thought I knew why.
"I don't think you're neurotic," I told her. "I think you're spongy." I explained that some people put out a lot of emotional energy—her noxious coworkers, for example—and others pick up a lot of it, like Virginia.
She stared at me as though she'd just noticed crunchy granola spilling from my ears. In her orthodox science worldview, my Theory of Emotional Sponginess was definitely not kosher. But I've seen so many people struggling with the effects of this mysterious phenomenon that I now take it for granted. Not everyone is spongy like Virginia, but those who are can learn to protect themselves from inadvertently taking in other people's stress.
Ever since Emile Durkheim's landmark work Suicide appeared in 1897, sociologists have accepted the possibility that self-slaughter can be communicable. So can panic, laughter, hope, violence, financial strategies, and the urge to solve Rubik's Cubes. Behaviors, moods, and fads seem to infect people just like germs, spreading through populations in epidemic waves.
A few researchers have tried to pinpoint the mechanism of contagious psychological phenomena. For example, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, studies the experience of "telephone telepathy"—knowing who's calling on the phone before you answer it. When subjects were asked to guess which friend or relative was calling them, they were far more accurate than would be expected by chance. When the callers were strangers, though, their guesses were statistically random. Sheldrake concluded that we can sense when people we care about are thinking about us, even at great distances.
We all know this is irrational. How embarrassing, then, that so many of us have had the experience of knowing who's calling the second the phone rings, or even a few seconds before. How unbelievable that my son, who has Down syndrome, regularly talks to me about things I'm thinking, even when I haven't said a word out loud. How ridiculous that so many of my clients, like Virginia, walk away from interpersonal interactions flooded with whatever emotions happen to ride in on the coattails of their associates.