Brennan Overview

The Transmission of Affect was published in 2004, very early in the so-called “affective turn,” and she doesn’t distinguish between “affect” and “emotion.” In fact, she defines affect in the same terms that Aristotle defines emotion (the pathe): as a physiological shift accompanied by a judgment or “evaluative orientation.”

If I peek over the side of a cliff and my heart starts racing and I start hyperventilating, those are the physiological shifts that we call fear or panic. I judge these physiological shifts to be negative, I don’t like them, so I step back. That sounds very Aristotelian! No big news there. However, Brennan also argues that “my” affect/emotion (iow: this physiological shift) doesn’t just stay inside me: it is an energy that leaks out of me and may be transmitted socially through certain physio-chemical mechanisms, including the senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. That is very un-Aristotelian.

In her terminology, the commonplace view is that our affects or emotions are our own. They’re generated within us and are the product of our experience and our history. But according to her, at least some of our “own” affects originated elsewhere, they belonged originally to someone else, and they made their way into us. They were socially transmitted. Our understanding of ourselves as discrete and autonomous, and our investment in that understanding, she says, prevents us from discerning between transmitted and non-transmitted affects. And that, she thinks, is making us literally sick.

Surely you’ve all experienced this “feeling of the atmosphere,” or if not, surely you’ve been around people who are angry or sad or resentful, and you find yourself feeling those affects, as well. Brennan calls this the transmission of affect, when “the emotions or affects of one person, [along with] the enhancing or depressing energies those affects entail, . . . enter another” (3).

This transmission, she says, is “social in origin but biological and physical in effect” (3). In other words, the energies of the transmitted affects impact me physiologically: someone else’s affects can change my biology. “If transmission takes place and has effects on behavior,” she writes, “it is not genes that determine social life; it is the socially induced affect that changes our biology” (2). Brennan doesn’t talk specifically about epigenetics, but she probably would if she were writing today. Epigenetics studies how environmental factors, including social relations, affect the way our genetic structure works by turning some genes on and other genes off.

Note that she says “no one really knows how it happens” (2). She’s not claiming to know for sure how affect passes from one person to another; rather she’s presenting some hypotheses based on current research in neuroscience, endocrinology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and other fields. And she’s presenting a history of thinking about affect that moved from accepting its transmission to insisting that individuals were self-sufficient and discrete, that body and mind were opposites, and so on. She is messing with all of that. She’s using different vocabulary and taking a different approach, but what she’s presenting is an affective ontology.

She distinguishes between affect/emotion and feeling. So again if you look over a cliff and your heart races, you don’t like that: you judge the feeling of that affect as not good, and you ease back. In this case, fear is what you feel; it’s the affect or emotion that you negatively evaluate. But feeling, Brennan says, is what you feel with.

If I feel angry, I am feeling the sensation of anger (the affect) as it courses through me physiologically. The feeling is not the affect, but what detects, interprets, and orients you to the affect, offers it up for judgment. She says: feelings are sensations “that have found the right words.” So she’s mixing up our terminology! But the ontology of exposedness is the same.

According to her, affects are always material and composed of an energetic dimension. So: “we are not self-contained in terms of our energies.” (6) This position dissolves the presumed boundary between the individual and the environment, the biological and the social. (7). You are exposed, open to the affect of the other.

So up against those who argue that behavior is determined genetically, Brennan insists that affect often originates in the social and that the social also conditions the biological. (She’s not saying biology doesn’t count; she’s saying that social encounters can change one’s physiological states, that the social and the biological are not as opposed and distinct as we typically imagine.)

Transmission of affects can happen thru sight, touch, hearing, or–and here’s the biggie–smell. What we respond to doesn’t have to be something we see or hear but could be something we smell without even knowing it (“ucs olfaction”). We can smell chemical/hormonal changes without ever knowing it, and imbibing them can alter who we are chemically-hormonally.

Brennan doesn’t want to focus on transmission through sight because it seems to protect our sense of ourselves as bounded. Sight requires a distance between you and what you see, so it protects your sense of autonomy. Brennan is mostly interested in smell, in the way we smell fear or whatnot. We know that in many species pheromones are a huge part of their communication. Pheromones are chemicals that she says act *outside* the body that secretes them, impacting the hormones and so the behavior of other individuals. Brennan notes that airborn pheromones communicate chemical information and produce reactions in others via an unnoticeable odor. Experts are divided about whether human pheromones exist, technically speaking, but it seems that something like them must be operating. Brennan hypothesizes that smell (in this case unconscious olfaction) is active in how we “feel the atmosphere” or pick up on or react to another’s depression without other communicative cues.

But this means we literally imbibe the other. We breathe in the other’s affect, and it takes us over. With the sense of smell, we understand the breaching of presumed boundaries between self and other, which is what she wants to suggest.

The moods of others affect our own, affect our very physiology at the unconscious level of hormones and pheromones. When we enter an anxiety laden room, we perceive that fear, perhaps by smelling it, she suggests. We breathe more quickly, sweat, clench our hands, and react emotionally to those changes.

She discusses two kinds of affective transfer:

  1. Dyadic affective transfers: Projection/introjection. These are transfers between two people or two groups (races, genders) in which one party benefits from the other’s loving attention, and the other party, the loving one, is stuck carrying the negative affects of the other. This exchange is based on what she calls “the foundational fantasy.” “The moment of the foundational fantasy is the moment when one says either ‘I am good and powerful. The other is base and abject,’ or ‘I am miserable and abject. The other is good and powerful (so good that sometimes they will punish me for my abjection’ ” (13).

For example, believing myself good and powerful, I might project something I don’t like about myself onto you—it’s you who are selfish or lazy, not me—which allows me to direct my unwanted aggression and hostility at you and so relieve myself of it. So I feel great! That’s projection. If you, believing yourself base and abject, accept my characterizations and so the aggression and hostility that I project onto you, then my affect gets into you, and your hormonal secretions are affected by it: you become anxious or depressed. That’s introjection. In this situation, you become a receiver of my negative affects and suffer the psychological and biological consequences of them. When projection is taken up by introjection, this person or group’s hostility becomes that person or groups’s depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle of “othering.”

  1. Simple affective transfers. A contagious transfer in which someone’s fear or aggression communicates itself, and others around them become afraid or aggressive in consequence. Aristotle also suggested that rhetors who want to provoke an emotion in the audience should display that emotion themselves–and this is why. As he already understood in the 4th century BCE, for whatever reason, my experience of you being angry or sad or scared can make me feel angry or sad or scared, too. The phenomenon of group-mind is a form of simple transfer. It can involve mimetic identification, in which one person links up rhythmically with others through chemical or nervous entrainment that is generally short-lived (49). Mob violence, Brennan suggests, requires the simple transmission of affect: it’s one reason an individual can be affected by a feeling in a group that this individual would not have had if left to themselves.

Entrainment is the means whereby one person’s affects are linked to another (49). Brennan defines it as “a process whereby one person’s or one group’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s” (9), so that they act “as of one mind” (52). So we mentioned women’s menstruation cycles last time. Brainwave entrainment is a big business right now—it involves bringing brainwaves into sync with an external stimulus for a particular purpose (sleep inducing CDs, for example). People often find that they’ve begun walking, clapping, swimming, or whatever in sync with others without any intention to do so. Rave music is designed to sync bodily rhythms to its beat. Your circadian rhythms tend to sync up with local environment, as well (and then your jet lag ends).

Brennan argues that bodily rhythms are most often chemically entrained through visual, auditory, and olfactory cues. Research in endocrinology has shown that when people of any sex are shown an aggressive image of angry, tense faces, they tend to feel the anger and tension, and their levels of testosterone will rise. When men are shown erotic movies, same effect ensues. But when they are shown films of dental surgery, anxiety rises and testosterone levels go down. Crowd theorists suggest that affect can transmit through other means than sight, and all the other senses are thought to play a part—including smell—but there is very little understanding about how this transmission works. (71-73)

So for example, a depressed person can also induce a negative mood in others. Who hasn’t experienced their own mood turn negative when trying to be around a depressed person? Sometimes it’s that one person’s depression gets another person down (identification); at other times, one person’s depression makes another angry or hostile (opposition), and the cycle reproduces itself.

 In the book, Brennan offers compelling evidence that this reproduction is at least largely responsible for three contemporary stress-induced disorders: ADHD, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. Studies of fibromyalgia patients, in particular, tend to link the onset of the condition with an emotional trauma in which the aggressor’s hostility is introjected (taken in) and re-lived over and over. The aggressor’s hostility literally becomes the victim’s depression, anxiety–and illness.

Brennan also argues that affects preexist us. That is, before we are consciously aware or have formed any sense of self, the affects of others are helping to form who we will be. Whether or not you got loving attention in the womb or as a newborn has a direct impact on who you’ll be able to become. The reason emotions can become so incredibly intense in groups is because affects are social in the first place. 

Discernment. Her hope is that if we begin with an affective ontology, we might begin to respond in more productive ways to the transmission of negative affect. We might learn to discern that it’s happening, stop being possessed by the onslaught of affects, and detach ourselves from them. So: How? The difference between affect and feeling is key for her. Affects are coming at us whether we’re paying attention or not, whether we’re actively feeling them or not. But if we can consciously attune ourselves to feeling negative affects, we might be able to differentiate between those that are consistent with our “historically formulated intensions” and those that are coming at us from the environment (94).

She calls the part of us that knows by feeling our “other I.” We experience relief from negative affects without projecting them when our other I becomes alert enough to these affects to reflect on them and discern what’s making them possible. Discernment gives us the chance to put bodily experiences into words, she says, and so to align our corporeal expression with our conscious vocabulary. Discernment is a meditative process whereby the body’s experiences can be named, in other words. And that allows us to consciously redirect our energy in a way that transforms it rather than passing it on. Mostly we free ourselves from negative affects by projecting them onto others. But the key to healing the shared sensorium, she says, is learning to discern and detach from them rather than projecting them. Discernment requires an education of the senses that includes a strong affective vocabulary.

Seven Deadly Sins and Discernment: According to Brennan, the so-called seven deadly sinspride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—are all affects or emotions rather than actions. Historically, they have been framed as visiting daemons or spirits that can settle in or come and go quickly. On the other hand, the four cardinal virtues—fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence—all target the dissolution of these negative affects. The affects are deadly sins. But feeling and discernment, she says, are the very stuff of the cardinal virtues.

When affect is transferred to me from you, due to something I didn’t in fact experience but am absorbing off you, my own body reacts as if it had itself experienced that situation. I might respond to that transmission with an immediate projection of it onto someone else, or I might introject it and so become anxious or depressed. OR, and this is her hope: I might actually talk this through with myself and discern that this affect is being dumped on me. I might stop the cycle by detaching myself from the affect and reconnecting with my actual lived experience.

PS: More on Brennan’s descriptions of the Foundational Fantasy: 

The fetus experiences a direct identification with the womb’s sustenance and nurturance: it can make no distinction, in other words, between itself and the womb. After birth, however, there is necessarily a delay between the infant’s needs/wants and the mother or primary caretaker’s response. It’s due to this delay that the infant experiences itself as separate and distinct from the sustenance/nurturance that it needs (from the mother figure), and that produces anxiety. This (separation) anxiety, according to Brennan, produces what she calls the foundational fantasy.

The foundational fantasy begins with the infant’s hallucinatory sense that it is 1) a discrete and self-contained individual, and 2) that it possesses, dominates, and controls its primary caregiver. The infant sees itself as the active subject, in other words, while seeing the mother figure as its passive object: I scream, you respond.

The foundational fantasy, Brennan suggests, becomes the foundation for the infant’s future relationships, as well as the intensity of its desire to possess, dominate, and control others and the environment.