Not So Lost in a World of Emotion

You laugh to show happiness. Your tears signify sorrow. You demonstrate compassion through your hugs and gentle touches. Society has constructed how we are expected to convey our emotions to others. These constructions are so ingrained in our society that the medical community uses emotional cues to detect the early signs of disability. The stories of Dr. Carl Bennett and Temple Grandin in Oliver Sacks’ book, An Anthropologist on Mars, introduce the idea that having a disability does not always inhibit one’s capability of expressing emotion, but can actually open up different avenues for communicating one’s thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Oliver Sacks - writer and Professor of Neurology at NYU School of Medicine
Dr. Oliver Sacks – writer and Professor of Neurology at NYU School of Medicine

One of Oliver Sacks’ first arguments in his book is that disease and defects can bring out “latent powers” and alternate expressions of emotions can trigger unparalleled creative potential. [1] When observing and working with a blind-to-sight man, he notices how the man claimed he was “watching television” when his eyes were closed. Sacks then immediately had to ask himself “What does seeing really mean to each individual?” [2] To understand disease, doctors must not only observe their patients in the office, but study their identity as well; take a look at their how their brains construct their own worlds. [3]

Dr. Carl Bennett, a surgeon, developed the first signs of Tourette’s syndrome when he was about seven years old. Ever since then he has twitched, compulsively touched both other people and inanimate objects, and has sudden outbursts of haphazard phrases. Bennett will often utter things such as “Hi Patty” (not his wife’s name) or “hideous” without any explanation or context. [4] While these tics could be seen as lacking emotion toward his wife or insensitive to his patients’ conditions, it does not mean that Carl cannot express feeling and show emotion; he just does it differently. Whenever Carl hears about a missing or hurt child on the news, his mind will immediately go to one of his own children and he will compulsively seek out and tap the nearest wall while whispering “I hope it won’t happen to mine.” [5] Sacks kept looking for an area of Bennett’s life that was truly suffering because of his unique way of expressing emotion, but found that he was respected by his colleagues and patients, had a pilot’s license, and a loving family. If Sacks had not have observed Bennett for himself within his own home, what would the neurological profession’s perception be of Bennett and others with Tourette’s? Subconscious tics and impulses can be both meaningless and loaded with emotion, but we wouldn’t know that just by looking at the medical textbooks or the rules of Miss Manners.

Another patient that Sacks worked with was Temple Grandin, a woman with Autism. There are three main “impairments” that those with Autism encounter: impairment of social interaction, impairment with verbal and non-verbal communication, and impairment of play and imaginative activities. [6] Two-thirds of the “core problems” that those with Autism deal with are issues with showing emotion and connecting with others. As early as six months old Temple was stiffening at the touch of her mother. Both Sacks and Temple’s doctors pinpoint this as the beginning of Temple’s Autism, because “who wouldn’t want to be held by their mother?” [7] As she grew older she would observe expressions of emotion and then decode them later, although not truly understanding them. She perceived none of the usual rules and codes for human relationship. [8] Temple may not feel overwhelming emotion toward other people, she may not understand sexual attraction, and she may dislike physical touch, but that does not mean that she is devoid of feeling. She has a great emotional understanding and connection to animals. She is famous for her ability to bond with livestock and her advocating of human animal treatment and slaughter. She explains, “When I’m with the cattle, it’s not all cognitive. I know what the cow’s feeling.” Temple experiences empathy, but through a different avenue.

Temple Grandin at a TED Talk in 2010.
Temple Grandin at a TED Talk in 2010.

Carl and Temple have both been taught that their inability to express emotion and feeling in a conventional way is a disability. Luckily they are part of the group of individuals that have become to look past the medical and social conceptions of disability. Even with Sacks’ innovative thinking and explanations of disability, he must always check himself when he attempts to find an explanation for a different avenue of emotion expression. When comparing medical and societal expectations with the differing ability of emotion, what standards should be set? Should there be any at all?

[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (Vintage Books: New York), xvi
[2] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 130
[3] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, xix
[4] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 80
[5] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 85
[6] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 246
[7] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 263
[8] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 269
[9] Ibid.

Categories: ABP

12 thoughts on “Not So Lost in a World of Emotion

  1. You bring up some good points here. Just because someone expresses emotion differently doesn’t mean their way of looking at the world is wrong. What may seem a disability from one perspective can for someone else be just another way of experiencing life. I’m reminded of my friend’s daughter, who is on the autism spectrum; she struggles with understanding emotions and has a lot of difficulties with social interactions, but she’s also incredibly smart, perceptive, and just fun to be around. Having autism has definitely been hard, and her mother (my friend) often says she wishes she could make life easier for her, but it doesn’t mean her way of being is any less valid or true. I think that we all have to step back and recognize that our experiences are not the only valid ones, and embrace the incredible diversity the world has to offer.

    1. Emily, I love your point that “it doesn’t mean her way of being is any less valid or true.” I have cousins that are on the autism spectrum, and it’s both difficult and amazing to see the way they view the world. I can see their frustration a lot of the time at not being able to articulate their feelings, but they also are so smart and engaged with their world and family. The intertwining of disease, symptoms, and identity really struck me throughout the readings.

  2. Sammy I’m so glad you wrote about this. Too often being different is made akin to being wrong or abnormal. The stories you chose to discuss highlight Bennett’s and Grandin’s talents that are lurking just beneath their veils of disability. People are so unaware of this flipside to the disability label. I liken it to a person who has loss or deficiency of one of their senses, but balances it with extraordinary abilities in their properly functioning senses. Every one of us has similar trade-offs in our bodies and our selves, except they are treated as strengths and weaknesses rather than labels.

  3. When I was reading these stories I was thinking a lot about how society “labels” us as individuals. We’ve created this “mainstream” idea of society, and if you veer off this path you are considered different or weird. However, the world is becoming much more unique. We are all looking for personalized experiences. However, we still consider personality something that is not changeable. It wasn’t that many years ago that incredibly smart people were considered nerds and were looked down upon because they were not athletic or cool. However, today they are revered. I think we need to move away from creating a normal and simply understand and respect all the things that make us each unique.

  4. To answer your questions, Sammy, no, I do not think there should be any standards whatsoever. Yes, having any understanding of emotional signifiers can be useful (tears can an expression of joy or sorrow), but we all feel things differently. My mom and I–who are very similar–can laugh, or cry, or cringe at completely different parts watching the same movie. Everyone experiences life differently, and it is not fair for us to impose a feeling code on others.

  5. Sammy, I can’t think of a good response to your questions. On the one hand, everyone experiences the world differently and I don’t think there should be standards about how we are supposed to express our feelings. On the other hand, medically it is helpful to set standards for emotions and to acknowledge that those with autism *do* experience the world in a different way. Knowing this fact helped Dr. Sacks when he was engaging with Temple Grandin because he knew not to be upset or turned off by the fact that she neglected to offer him coffee, for example.

    1. Carly, I was also unsure how to answer Sammy’s questions. I’m not sure that the “code” set by society is always conscious, it’s just the way we learn to communicate in our own cultural context. Having those cues, in my opinion, makes communication rich because you can signal so much nonverbally. But having an awareness that some people do not have an innate understanding of those cues is really helpful for developing empathy. Expressing emotion in a different way is not a less valid of being, but it does make life harder for people who do not fit cultural norms. Reading stories like this help us understand that not all people experience the world in the same way.

  6. Going through my personal experience, I think there needs to be some standards. In the field of hearing loss, aiding the hearing loss helps the language development and speech. I just don’t know. I am a product of dealing with the social standards (which led to lots of anxiety about speech, loud, and following the conversation). However, I benefited from the medical standards…..

  7. I think that these readings are truly filled with so much to think about. Its wonderful that people who not long ago would have been seen as “strange” or “outsiders” have found such incredible success in the medical field, with the fair treatment of animals, and so many other areas. They have literally improved the lives of people and animals though their work. It just goes to prove that we all have different bodies and ways of interacting with each other, and none of them should be held as more acceptable than others. I think that we need to be vigilant about our interactions with those we come into contact with and do our best to suspend judgement as we get to know one another.

    1. Great post Sammy!! Agree Caitlin, that we need to do our best to suspend judgment when we interact with people, because we do not know their life or what they may be going through. People view and interact with the world in different ways and everyone’s perception of the world around should be viewed as valid, despite their assumed ability or disability.

  8. To sort of answer your question Sammy, I’m not quite sure if setting standards is really whats best for everyone. Everyone experiences life differently, even two “neurotypical” people have vastly different emotions and perceptions of the world around them.

  9. I really loved this post Sammy. I agree with many others that these readings and your post made me think much deeper about how individuals perceive and experience the world differently. I believe this makes the world we live in so much more beautiful, enriched by the variety of human experience and behaviors. However it does pose many challenge for the designer of institutions and programs that serve diverse audiences. How can we use this knowledge to create positive experiences for everyone? What does “accessible” truly mean?

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