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What the Heck Is an Emotion, Anyway ?

Updated on September 30, 2014

If you are reading this title, and the answer seems obvious to you, then chances are you are NT (Neuro-Typical). In other words, your mental and emotional world corresponds fairly well to the unspoken social codes guiding behavior and self-expression in your daily life. If you are on the autism spectrum like I am, then the word “emotion” evokes a strange, mostly inaccessible world. Emotions seem to govern much of the world around me, but I don’t have direct access to all of this behind-the-scenes fantasy world that so powerfully affects the people I know.

In the abstract, of course, I know what an emotion is: it’s the hidden, molten core at the center of our social world, and it’s the thing that, from my perspective, makes NT people act in crazy, unpredictable ways. It’s the driving motor behind everything from daily family life to huge business deals, and I’m on the outside looking in. This is one of the defining experiences of being an AS adult living in an NT world.

So what’s an emotion for someone like me? Over the years, I’ve tried to explain it to friends and family in number of ways. Here’s another try:

I think that most NTs experience emotions as a free-floating give-and-take, like an air that’s breathed back and forth during a conversation. Now imagine that emotions are a kind of viscous liquid instead. In this heavier atmosphere, transferring feelings is less immediate. They need time to absorb into the skin, and the communication needs to be a much more self-conscious contact.

A Thought Experiment

Ants use a liquid chemical to communicate how they are doing. Sometimes I think I would prefer a world where solid touch predominates over this NT universe of airy emotions. Touching is so important to me, because I can feel my counterpart’s internal world like a solid thing rather than grasping at something intangible. If we lived in a world of touch, I would find it easier to navigate. Simple, everyday interactions like would fit better into my understanding.

Let’s take a straightforward example, like buying something at the supermarket: At the checkout, the cashier usually says, “Hi, how are you?” without meaning it, or in a tone that shows he or she doesn’t really want to know. I find this endlessly confusing. When emotions float through the air, they move by too quickly, and mix too easily with other, contradictory feelings. Now slow this world down, solidify it into a sticky mass, and you have a cosmos that flows at my speed. The cashier could touch my hand, and I would have a sense of how he or she was really feeling.

The AS cosmos consists of one feeling at a time, or at least one predominant feeling, and it doesn’t float through my body, across my face and out into the social world, where it evanesces in the half-forgotten weather patterns of the NT world. Instead of floating airily through me, my feelings linger and circulate thickly and slowly. When I was younger, a feeling like frustration would soak through me, taking over my entire perception and leaving me completely pervaded with that sense of anguished restlessness.

Romance without Emotion?

Even though this may sound really unpleasant from an NT perspective, I have come to appreciate having feelings so thoroughly. I have always found romantic relationships easier to negotiate than friendships, because they are based on strong, central emotions, and touch is a more natural component of daily connection. Friendship, by contrast, depends on a lot free-flowing exchange and very little touch. I often find myself one step behind the exchange that’s supposed to oil the wheels of friendship.

Living in an AS cosmos, I envision interactions in which feelings could be articulated clearly, and one at a time. Some AS children use the strategy of picking a face out of a list to show how they are doing. This still makes sense to me. I remember as a child being amazed that the adults around me could move so fluidly from one emotion to the next. My mother would be angry at something she heard on the news, and then pick up the phone with a pleasant “Hello?” Sometimes I find myself wishing that we were all more literal, like a Vulcan world full of Spocks who speak in complete sentences and translate emotions into logical terms. But this will never be, and I would never want to make anyone give up all the strange poetry of emotions. It’s an experience I can admire from the outside, when it isn’t driving me crazy!


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