Emotional misattribution? Mental structures you can access from states

In my recent post on possible interventions on physiological arousal, there’s something interesting about two of the approaches that felt most promising to me.

Both singing and exercising involve going with the flow, or moving in the same “direction” as the arousal. In both cases, you lean into the activation, but you apply a new meaning to it, or reinterpret it, or repurpose it, or something.

In the case of singing: I feel agitated about something and my physiology is activated. I sing some folk songs, really feeling into the emotions and the meaning they embody. After doing that for a bit the arousal exhausts itself, and I’m calmer or more settled.

It similar in the case of exercising: I’m agitated, I pour that excess energy into working out, and I expend that energy.

In fact, while we’re at it, in the past, I’ve noted before that masturbation / ejaculation seems to have a similar impact.

The last two are less confusing / surprising, because they seem like they involve hormonal shifts / the literal expending of chemical energy. But what’s happening in the case of singing? There’s some, goal structure / meaning, some reason why I’m aroused / agitated / activated, I take that activation and “apply” it to a totally separate goal structure / meaning, I “resolve” this new goal structure, and my system calms down as if it just forgets what caused it to be agitated in the first place.

That seems kind of weird. You’d think that if my body thought that there was some reason to be energized, and I added a second reason to be energized, but then resolve that second reason, I should still be energized, because nothing has changed about reason #1.

But I guess it doesn’t work that way.

It seems more like there’s a two way information flow between mental content and physiological state, and each one informs the other. (I think “informs” is exactly the right word. Each one is updating on the outputs of the other, my body responding to my thoughts, and my thoughts responding to my body.) So if I’m agitated, and I try to shift my thoughts to something non-agitating, this force-against-force, my mind is resisting, on the basis of my bodily activation. But I can easily swap out a different agitating / activating thought structure, without any resistance at all. And apparently, the whole system doesn’t have enough “working memory” to track two meanings at once, and so the original gets dropped.

I suspect that this phenomenon might be pretty general, that it applies to a bunch of different emotional/physiological states, not just arousal. I was in a circle once, when I was really sad about one thing, and then I found myself crying about (and feeling some catharsis around) some other sad thing.

In fact, I think in general, when I’m feeling sad, I tend to associate it with my romantic loneliness, out of something like habit, even if my romantic situation didn’t have much to do with why I was feeling down.

I postulate that when you’re in a given physiological state, you have ready access to all (?) of the meaning-structures (whatever that means), that are “attuned to” (whatever that means), that state. So when you’re sad, you can access all of the reasons / narratives to be sad (although maybe only one at a time?), and when you’re excited you can access all of the reasons / narratives to be happy.

[I wonder if this has anything to do with why depression is resilient. Maybe people slip into a depressed state, and they access / slide into a meaning structure that they’re used to remunerating on, which unfortunately, is very robust, and so they get stuck in their depressed state.  That is, when a person is depressed they are accidentally doing the opposite of the trick I described above, instead of switching to a meaning that they can resolve, thereby exiting the state, they switch to a meaning that is particularly hard to resolve.]

This is in some sense just a restatement of the concept of “emotional misattribution”, but it seem importantly different in framing somehow.




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