I had a mildly traumatic experience in the Westfield Plaza Food Court a couple of days ago, and it’s been reverberating with me ever since.
I was having my usual Roadhouse salad with chicken, minus the onion rings, and was steeped in joyful contentment. I had accomplished a lot during the day, after a workout at the gym the day before, and was basking in the warmth of kinship with all the feeding people around me, looking from face to face and reveling in the display of human feeling spread out in the large space like an emotional smorgasbord.
And then this one woman’s face briefly caught my eye. She seemed to be looking for someone and feeling mild distress at not finding them—a common sight in this busy hub. The food court is a popular place for people to meet, and I’ve often seen people on their cell phones looking around more or less frantically and saying, “Where are you?”
But something about this woman—I can’t say what—triggered a radical transformation in my mood. This vast, familiar space suddenly seemed alien, as if I had been transported to another planet, and the people who had moments before seemed like brothers and sisters now appeared as hollow shells of themselves, with no emotional connection to me at all.
The contrast to my prior mood was stark. My state of joyful contentment had evaporated, leaving a fog of depression and mild panic in its place. I looked at the faces around me, trying to regain some sense of connection, and the fog slowly dissipated, not quite returning me to my former bliss, but at least the depression and panic were gone.
I felt a bit shaken, uneasy. My feeling of being at home in the world, nestled among my fellow humans, had seemed so stable, so secure, that having it instantaneously stripped away and replaced by its opposite left anxiety and foreboding in its wake. Some cue beyond conscious awareness had flipped my emotional compass, and there was no way of knowing how soon it might happen again.
I found myself thinking about the mental mechanics of such a change. The incident had given me a vivid, real-life example of something I had known intellectually for years and had experienced in milder forms—that the brain creates my experience, both conscious perceptions and emotional reactions to them. I’ve learned to pay attention to shifts in mental imagery and mood, and have become familiar with the seeming caprice of my brain’s reactions. The incident at the food court was just a more emphatic example of a phenomenon I was familiar with. Something about that woman’s face had resonated with a patch of neurons in my brain, and although I have a clear image of her face in that moment, what that something was has not been raised to the level of consciousness.
On the BART train back to Oakland, I looked at my fellow passengers, immersed in their books and devices, and wondered if these activities anchored them in a sense of stability, insulating them from the potential chaos of a brain on the loose.
In the two days since, I have found myself with a new attitude toward the comfortable feeling of familiarity that is my norm. Puttering around my apartment, walking through the neighborhood, at the gym again yesterday, my life is almost entirely free of stress and anxiety. This little part of the world is my home, and peace and contentment are the rule. But I now have a new awareness that those feelings, natural and inevitable as they ordinarily seem, are being generated by a brain that is capable of turning them inside out in a heartbeat, given the right stimulus. I realize that it is my good fortune that its reactions are, for the most part, pleasant and stable.
Having come to a more vivid realization of its capabilities, my brain seems to be incorporating the insight into it’s modus operandi. Hopefully, the next time it finds itself rocketed into a world of alienation and fear by some random stimulus, it will remember, “Oh yeah, this kind of thing can happen, given my architecture, but it’s not pleasant, and doesn’t seem to contribute to my organism’s adaptation to the world. Please disregard this random fluctuation in the matrix.”