a few words about stimming – part one

[image description: colour-enhanced pre-dawn sky tones overlaid with texture from a broccoli head close-up. Text: a few words about STIMMING in white and purple]
[image description: colour-enhanced pre-dawn sky tones overlaid with texture from a broccoli head close-up. Text: a few words about STIMMING in white and purple]

What are stims? Actually no, let me ask this: What are stims for?

Not a question that gets asked very often.

Seriously though, what are they actually for, because when we look at the kinds of things people talk about, a lot of it focuses on Regulation and Communication. How can one kind of activity do both those thing, because if you give it a moment’s thought, they are not exactly similar. To start with, communication is all about interacting with the environment, and in particular the other humans in that environment – it is all about reaching out, sending signals. But regulation is the opposite, being focused in on internal states and maybe also on sensory experiences – the environment entering your thoughts, not your thoughts entering the environment.

So, what’s going on? As is often the case when we are faced with a problem like this, it might be that we’re looking at things on the wrong level, and there isn’t really a problem at all. Or perhaps what we call stims just look similar but are two or more totally different things. It may be that both those possibilities are true.

First, I’m going to look closer at those two ideas: Stims are Communication, and Stims are Regulation.

Regulation involves rebalancing internal states that have been overloaded or understimulated, generating some kind of emotions that are uncomfortable or unpleasant, if not outright distressing. When we get upset or distressed, it is not just a feeling arising from emotions of discomfort, anxiety, sorrow and so on somewhere up in our brains. It is a change in what’s going on in our brains certainly, but our brains are connected to the rest of our body by vast networks of nerves, and what we’re thinking or feeling ripples across our bodies just as signals from around our bodies travel to our brain.

So, yes, when we ‘feel’ a certain emotion, we also ‘feel’ different physically. Obvious examples are how our bodies react to extreme fear – dilation of pupils, muscle tension, raised heart rate, change in breathing and so on. The idea that emotion is separate from cognition just does not make sense, and the idea of the mind separate from the body makes even less sense.

Great, but what about stims then? Well, we do know things like pacing, jigging your leg, doodling, clenching your hands and so on are common ways of responding to stress for example, and we understand those very activities as types of stim. Which means everyone stims. Yep. In this sense, stims act as a way to transfer ‘emotional energy’ into something physical, sort of like a pressure release valve if you like. By doing that, they… you guessed it, they regulate our emotional (and by extension, mental) state.

This is why we say ‘everybody stims’ and call out the artificial distinction between ‘normal’ human activities and this allegedly functionless and aberrant Autistic activity called stimming. Stimming is very, very functional. It is something everyone does, and patterns of stimming are found to be very consistent all across the globe, which tells us it is a basic human strategy that is pretty optimal in its functionality… and its function in that sense is to maintain homeostasis – balance – in our state of being. We know stims often do this by transferring ‘pressure’ or ‘energy’ from our emotional state into physical actions, and by so doing help restore balance and a sense of control.

If you like, that release of ‘negative’ energy is the most basic form of stim, Foundation Level Stimming. But humans act out their emotional state when they are elated or excited or just happy too. Just watch a crowd at a football match when their team scores. Nothing more need be said – jumping, hugging, cheering, clapping, waving hands, dancing… and yes, that list looks a lot like a list of ‘aberrant and dysfunctional’ Autistic stims.

And you now know why. Autistics are humans, and Autistic stims are just human stims, and human stims are very consistent across cultures.

The big difference is Autistics tend to stim more, more often, and with more fluency. Given we know emotional states are the key driver behind stims, that suggests Autistic people are driven more by emotions or feel emotions more. So, why would that be?

Emotions are essentially a translation of how experiences ‘feel’ into (not always accurately) labelled categories. Any review of categorisations of emotions will reveal quickly that experts still struggle to define the fuzzy edges of emotions, and these can vary from culture to culture. In this sense emotions are not unlike colours – the ‘edges’ between one and the next are fuzzy, somewhat arbitrary, and also somewhat culturally defined… and we can, with practice, manage and regulate them and how we respond to them.

What we can say is that they emanate from broad feelings along the lines of ‘this is a bit bad’, ‘this is very bad’, ‘this is a bit good’, ‘this is the best’, ‘this is the worst’ and clearly even those can be generalised as degrees of ‘feels yum’ and ‘feels yuck.’

What regulation seeks to do is release excess to bring those ‘yum’ and ‘yuck’ feelings within the boundaries of comfort. So, we have a sort of ‘comfortable zone’ and the edges are like thresholds past which emotions can start overpowering us.

Now definitely if you are enjoying overloading on happy feels you will want to enhance that and we could view that as a decision to temporarily shift the ‘happy threshold,’ but that can be just as distracting as anything else if you are trying to focus on something complex that requires a calm state of mind.

Where stims work best really is in restoring balance and calm. That’s why they tend to get associated with negative states, as ways to manage that state and prevent overload. Actually, if you look closer at that football crowd, they are not really stimming to release their joy as releasing tension, stress, anxiety that had built up during the match. The goal provides a trigger event allowing them transfer that excited tension into physical release.

And here’s a little curiosity. If you release ‘negative energy’ by stimming, and keep going… can you cross the ‘comfort zone’ and even pass the ‘positive energy’ threshold?

Pause a minute and consider that.

So, I just told you the big secret about stimming. This is how ‘happy stims’ work, and Autistics have become masters of this art. You can generate emotional states by using stims that are designed to pull you back from negative overload, and use them to push into strongly positive states of being.

Is that a revelation? If you are Autistic, it may not be.

Actually, I’ve already noted that as Autistics are human and humans stim, we should expect similar tricks to appear in how all humans act. And we do. Anyone who has got caught up in dancing, or jumping and clapping at a concert, or jumping and clapping at that football match too… you are using ‘anti-negativity’ tools to push through emotionally to overload on happy emotions.

I’m going to leave that just sit there for now. Time to mention communication.

This bit is actually easier to discuss especially if you are familiar with the idea ‘behaviour is communication.’ By behaviour we mean basically any activity people (or other animals) do. It is communication because we do stuff because we are motivated by a desire to meet a certain goal. That might be to find a more comfortable sitting position, or make it to the bus stop, or focus on a difficult textbook, to feel warmer or to address hunger.

So what’s that motivation feel like? The word ‘feel’ here is a massive clue because we’ve been using it from the start. What motivates us is a state of being that feels positive or, more often, negative. We can translate that feeling into an ‘emotion’ by reviewing how our bodies are experiencing it, and how automatic processes are shaping our actions.

Exhibit 1: the word ‘hangry’ which is designed to capture the irritability we feel when hungry. Anger + Hunger. Irritability and anger are emotional states. We know when someone is angry or irritated by how they act. In other words, they communicate their emotion through their behaviour… and that is how behaviour is a form of communication. Humans use this regularly – this is what we’re talking about when we discuss body language and micro gestures that add nuance to what a person might be saying. We also know we can sometimes just look at a person and know what their emotional state likely is, by how they stand, how they move, the way they move their face muscles.

So, if stims are basically a kind of ‘behaviour’ that is motivated by emotions, they are essentially like body language, and act as communication channels just like facial expression or posture or hand gestures can.

We still need to think about why Autistic people would be more driven by emotions, because there’s a reason for that. It is a separate discussion entirely though and I’m not going to try keep you here for another 3000 words. Relax!

What I will say in finishing is that managing emotional states is a normal everyday activity for all humans and fundamental to wellbeing. Humans as a whole have a lot to gain from sitting at the feet of the experts. I’d also mention that when we think about how we can focus on a task, get engrossed in it, maintain concentration over extended periods, even enter a ‘flow state’… at the heart of that is an ongoing process of subtle regulation of emotional balance.

That’s something to discuss in the second blog in this mini-series. Keep your eyes peeled, it’ll pop up in a couple of days.

For now, be good, enjoy your feels, and remember: respect the stimmer, respect the stim!


This blog was brought to you with the (emotional regulation) support of:

Myrkur: ‘Mareridt’ [2017]

Myrkur: ‘Folkesange Folk’ [2020]

Aphrodite’s Child: ‘666’ [1971]


Emotions and control

What is an emotion?

No, I don’t mean ‘can you name off some emotions,’ I mean ‘can you describe or explain what an emotion is, can you say what this ‘emotion’ stuff is, can you describe how they work?’

It’s not easy, to be fair.

Let’s step back a bit. What causes an emotion to happen? We can answer that using a range of different kinds of language, talking about triggers or precursors, inputs, activators or whatever, but to put it simply… a cause (a thought, sensory input, memory, whatever) has an effect, and that effect is big enough that it takes a form we recognise as emotion. So general it’s bordering on meaningless, perhaps.

What kind of things prompt these ‘emotion’ responses? Pretty much anything can, in the right circumstances. When we think about how we react to most experiences, when we describe the reaction we very often use emotional terms, or terms that imply an underlying emotion. Note – when we react. It is not just any experience, just the ones we feel warrant a response. What drives the decision to respond is this flip-switch thing called emotion.

We’re not generally taught to think about ourselves this way. It is instilled in us very much that we are rational beings and that our responses really ought to be ‘mature’ or ‘considered’ and that an emotional response is in some way irrational or immature.

Let’s take an example. It is a warm day and you’ve been busy and are a bit overheated and dehydrated, so you go grab a cool drink. Focus on that drink. What is your response as you chug it down? How would you describe your state afterwards? I had to rewrite that because initially I went with ‘how do you feel…’ in both questions and recognised I was already pushing ‘emotion’ terms. That in itself tells us something. But get back to that cool drink…

The words that people typically offer at this point are things like Uncomfortable, Irritated, Want, Anticipation, and later Relief, Satisfaction, Relaxed, Pleased and so on. It is not that hard to see that we’re dealing with specifically emotional terms. Humans do not generally approach a scenario like this with thoughts about osmotic pressure, respiration, capillary dilation, sodium levels, core body temperature and so on.

However it may be, though, whether you enjoy using sciency ideas or just are gagging for something cold, behind that are the same experiences, and the reason you even notice those experiences are what matters here. So, why do you notice? What form does that noticing take? We are right there in the space where sensory input transitions to conscious awareness, and the crucial question is, How does that sensory input trigger that conscious awareness? Why now? Why not 15 minutes ago?

What’s happened is that something has ‘tripped a switch,’ something has crossed a threshold, like rising waters spilling over a bank or levee. That’s what creates the things we call emotions. I did a picture. It’s not pretty but it is functional.

The middle line we can look on as a sort of ideal calm state. The blue and red lines are threshold values. The jerky yellow line is our emotional state over the course of, say, a day. As time passes, certain experiences may be nicer or less nice, but we roll on because life’s all about rolling on through minor bumps and glides. Then something happens that is particularly nice or particularly unpleasant – your partner messages to suggest eating out at a restaurant you really like, or you get to your car to find someone has dinged your car door and left a scratch. Okay, now we have an experience that kicks you over a threshold and an otherwise average day becomes loads better, or turns sour for a bit. Your response is emotional. Surprise.

Okay, that’s not exactly a revelation. It is also reflected precisely in the way that synapses in neurons fire, and as those very signals are the basis for poking us into feeling emotions, the idea of crossing a threshold and triggering a signal is a fair reflection of what’s actually happening on a cellular level. Cool.

More than that, we can say that when a person is in a chronic state of elevated emotion (usually in a negative way like anxiety or frustration or fear), it is now no surprise to find that it takes a smaller ‘input signal’ to push that wavy yellow line over the threshold. On a scale where going down to a 2 or up to a 10 will cross a threshold for you, if you are typically around the 4.5-5.5 range, a couple of ‘two unit’ events are not going to bring you to the threshold. If you are typically in the 8-8.5 range, just one would be enough. And that applies both for positive and negative emotions.

However, we don’t experience ‘an emotion’ as if there’s just this homogenous soup of emotion stuff. Agreed. They have what you could call personalities (we give them helpful names like ‘anger’, ‘amusement’, ‘distress’, ‘hope’ etc.), and they can be categorised as positive or negative (anticipation versus distress for example), and through time – we have emotions that refer only to past events (like regret) or the future (hope). They have also been grouped into clusters with one being a more intense variant on the previous, placed in opposition to each other, classed as related in varying degrees, being simple emotions or compounds of two or three others… There is no one clear-cut system that is generally accepted to classify emotions, and pretty much every one that has been attempted struggles when cultural differences come into play such as gender or social roles, tradition and ethnicity, age, perceptions of things like race, criminality, age, and more. It is really, really messy.

But… for our purposes, none of this matters. Phew! What does matter is that emotion is kicked off at a threshold point, and that things like past experiences, current state of mind, sensory stressors, and your sense that you have some degree of control over where things go next, are crucial in determining whether you feel a given emotion, how intensely you feel that emotion and your sense that you can control how it intensifies or dissipates.

There’s a hint in there about a key concept that lies at the heart of the whole experience of emotions – control. Emotion is, in essence, about the degree to which we feel we have control over what has happened, what is happening or what happens next.

This is why emotions are really important when we think about how Autistic people experience life and the how and why behind the way Autistics respond to those experiences.

Emotions play an important role in shaping how Autistic people experience and respond to their environment including their internal environment (such as bodily functions or thoughts) and their ‘human environment’ (the people they encounter and the nature of those encounters). At the heart of all that is a person’s sense of control over the course of events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the business of interpersonal relations. In this sphere, Autistics are – paradoxically – typified as unemotional, cold or unfeeling… but also prone to acting out, over-reaction, meltdowns, ‘tantrums’ and so on. Hmm.

The thing is, those observations are not wholly off the mark, but they are also not actually a paradox. Explaining how this is the case reveals the central role that a sense of control over one’s destiny – or autonomy – plays, and not just for Autistics but for all humans. This is because Autistic people are so utterly, totally, typically human, and what affects any person’s sense of autonomy and thus their emotional state is exactly the same as affects Autistics. What differs is not the person as such, but the experience they have.

And there goes a whole pile of pathologised ideas about how ‘disordered’ Autistics are! Whoosh!

So, let’s take an example, because this all sounds fine in theory but if it doesn’t translate to real scenarios it might as well be a fairy tale.

Going to lunch in a busy café with friends might be a really positive emotional experience, lots of buzz and bustle and joking and catching up, nice food, nice smells, all that stuff.

Now try doing that when you’ve been for tests for a potentially life-changing medical condition, you’ve not told anyone, and you really don’t know what the tests will show. It is not the same experience. You are distracted, maybe irritable. It is hard to focus on conversation, laugh at jokes, or enjoy your food. You feel obliged to force yourself to interact, to chuckle at jokes, to remember to ask questions but it’s a façade because most of your brain is busy elsewhere. The noise is jarring rather than a happy clatter, conversation is a struggle rather than an easy flow.

What’s going on? The emotional experience is utterly different, and at the heart of it is just one (albeit significant) environmental difference, a difference that exists not in the café but in your head. Even so, it is as ‘real’ a part of your personal environment as that cup of coffee or the smell of warm muffin or your friend’s voice. Instead of a mix of emotions constantly popping their heads over the ‘positive’ emotional threshold, they’re digging tunnels under the ‘negative’ threshold, and because they relate to something you cannot currently control (your test results) and the possible implications of that (something life-changing), they’re not going to go away easily. Constantly pushing them back under cover is hard work and for every one you push back, another pops up. Worse, this is distracting, and more negative feelings arise because it is a struggle to keep track of what’s happening in the café, and to respond in a friendly, interested way. Are you even succeeding in pretending? They can probably tell ‘something’s up’ despite your efforts, and that’s something you don’t want to talk about right now.

This is all about a sense of control, and the emotions you feel are linked in both scenarios to how much you feel in control of your piece of this world.

Same scenario, but this time you are Autistic and you go to the café at a quiet time, with one or two friends. You snack and have some tea. You chat quietly and because the lights are dimmed, the blind is partly down, and there’s almost nobody else there, you can enjoy the food and the smells, engage comfortably in conversation. You can feel at ease saying ‘okay I need to split soon’ without feeling obliged to hang around longer than feels comfortable. Anything in your environment that could be unpleasant is at low levels and manageable. You can keep track of the chat. You feel this situation is under control.

Now, do it again, at lunchtime. You are stressed out by the environment itself – the constant coming and going of customers, the sudden hiss of the coffee machine or clatter of plates, the barrage of noisy voices that blurs into a cloud of booming sound. You want to chat but just following what’s being said is a struggle. You can’t remember what your food even tasted like (did I have that cheese toastie in the end? No, soup. Glance at the empty bowl realising that you don’t remember eating…) and when someone asks casually ‘so how was the soup?’ you smile mechanically and say ‘oh, fine.’ And now you’ve lost track of that interesting conversation about the roadworks on the bypass. Ugh. It’s stressful, frustrating, confusing, distressing even.

You could go into lockdown and shut off the emotions, carry out an A-B-C of nods, laughs and responses and hold off until you get home to let it out. A self-imposed form of control, over yourself at least, because everything else is outside any kind of control. Alternatively, you can respond to the sense of lost control and get agitated, edgy, irritable, possibly make a snarky comment or get all sullen, leave suddenly. It is all about how you respond emotionally, when you respond, and how you exercise control… if you can.

On a general level, both these scenarios are the same. It is just about a person in a café who feels they do or do not have control over their experience and responses, how that is played out in emotions, and how those emotions are intertwined with their sense of control.

Great. So what?

Here’s what – that busy café experience is in one or another form played out constantly as a normal daily experience for many Autistic people, on a bus or train, in a classroom or office, in a shop or pub, or just walking the dog.

Imagine that experience of waiting for test results, and imagine going through that twice or four times or ten times in a day, every day, right through your life. It’ll break you. It’ll break you pretty damn quick.

You could just shut down emotionally, barricade yourself in and endure until you get space to release it all privately, or you may not manage that and end up flipping out in an outburst of emotion – intolerance, anger, tears, tantrumming, snarling, glowering sullenness. You could be ‘unemotional’ or you could be ‘over-emotional,’ and the cause? One and the same. Too much unpredictable, uncontrollable stuff, too many demands on your attention and thoughts.

Of course, if you were to blurt out suddenly about your worries and fears around that medical test and the wait for results, what it could mean for you… cue all the empathy and compassion, kind words and support. It might be way outside the experience of the others with you, but they have an idea about all this kind of thing and how you’re supposed to respond. You maybe are not so lacking control after all.

This is not an option typically open for Autistic people dealing with sunlight slanting into their eyes, noxious smells, disorienting background movements and noise, and much more. These are things everyone else is also experiencing right now and they know how it feels. It doesn’t feel bad. What are you on about? Ugh.

You’re not even in control of your own story now. You are over-reacting, creating a fuss, spoiling things. Your own friends are now unintentionally gaslighting you just when what you needed was support and consideration. And there you go with a whole new set of emotional triggers.

So, how important are emotions? Huge. Essential. They are right there at the core of the decisions around how we respond to our experiences. They say “this is important! respond!”

The words emotion, motivation and motion derive from the one root meaning, and appreciating just how emotions are the motivators that drive our ‘motions’ (or actions, or responses, if you like) makes a big difference to understanding what goes on between ‘cause’ and ‘effect,’ or what gets called ‘stimulus’ and ‘behaviour.’

It is also a great way to assess just how much control we have over that bit of the world we lay claim to, our personal space in its many forms. If you include the word ‘desire’ it perhaps gets easier to spot – when you experience something and desire to act on it, that desire is in the form of an emotion (we want to vent our anger, weep our sorrow, pace out our frustration, or clap our delight). If you want to sustain the emotion, or want to cause it to dissipate, checking to see if your response was successful in achieving that is a quick, easy way to establish to what extent you do indeed have things under control.

Super-simple example: The TV is too loud. The emotional effect is unpleasant. You desire to exercise control over this. You grab the TV controls and lower the volume. Quick emotional check: the unpleasant effect ceases. Cool. You are in control. All is good. It is as simple as that:

Experience -> Emotion -> Desire -> Decision -> Action -> Outcome -> Check -> Success / Fail

We do this over and over hundreds of times a day. How close we are to a given threshold depends on our circumstances, on our past experiences, on our expectations, and it determines how often daily events have an emotional effect, and how much effort goes into addressing or expressing that. Understanding this and applying it to basically everything that Autistic people experience, to every observation of Autistic ‘behaviour,’ reveals that Autistic people are not really any different to anyone else, we are just constantly pushed way too close to those emotional thresholds way too often, and that ‘black box’ that behaviourists refuse to discuss in between input and ‘behaviour’ turns out to not be incomprehensible, and to actually be really very important.

Start from there, and the pillars of what allegedly characterises Autistic people start to fall, one after another, boom, boom, boom… just examples of humans being human after all, and what’s left is a vulnerable, sensitive, patient, determined, passionate, resourceful human being who just needs the world to cut them a bit of slack.

This show was brought to you with the emotional support of:

Siouxie and the Banshees – The Scream, 1978
Sweet Smoke – Just a Poke, 1970
Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto nr.3 in C minor, Op.37
Grateful Dead – ‘Dark Star’ from Live/Dead, 1969

Emotions and the Well-calibrated Self

There have been many, many models of emotion that have attempted to define and explain what this indefinable and inexplicable thing might be. Most have been failures, unable to account for whole swathes of emotional experience. It can be hard to pin down exactly what has gone wrong in these efforts, but perhaps it can be stated like this: By attempting to explain emotions themselves or by attempting to locate emotions in physical structures of the brain or body, or provide a single overarching purpose for Emotion, each effort has failed by asking the wrong questions. The question perhaps should not be Where are emotions, What are emotions or What are emotions for, but How are emotions.

The oddness of that question – How are emotions – is perhaps the key to its ability to elude us as well as the key to understanding emotion itself.

To be fair, progress with analysis of brain structures, new models of how the brain works, and descriptions that use systems, networks, processes of development and emerging phenomena seem to capture not just more of what we understand by emotion but provide meaningful explanations of how and why. The ideas of homeostatic emotion and constructed emotion are examples of these kinds of approach. They head in the right direction it seems, but they do not go far enough.

To push this further, we need to forget about emotion altogether and, picking up the idea of homeostasis, generalise that idea far, far beyond the individual’s body, and indeed far beyond the actual into the possible – and even into the impossible. This is because emotion is at work in memories, in imaginings, in aspirations and in the workings of logic. It is, in short, a cloud that surrounds the person and all they know, their mind and all they contemplate.

The idea that we feel closest to immediate family, the wider family and friendship groups, then the community, and so on in spheres of decreasing connectedness is an easy one to understand. The more connection, shared experience and interdependence we have, the closer we feel to those people. The less connection we have, the harder it is to feel connected – this is not a difficult concept. For an inherently social species such as humans a sense of connection – of relatedness – is essential for our way of living. It is the web that holds society together. It also, by extension, progressively excludes those further and further from our life experience – fewer contacts and fewer shared experiences you have, the less meaningful that person’s wants and needs are for you, and vice versa.

Within this basic model, how do we understand the idea of ‘myself’?

Does the self end where skin meets air? Does it extend beyond that, into a ‘personal space, or into the family or community? Does it lie in the mind alone? What happens when a person’s sense of self does not fully align with what most would consider the basic unit of self, the physical body or the individual mind? What exactly is this thing called The Self, and how do we ‘see’ it?

The concept of personal space is useful here I think. Most people are well aware that they have a personal space, that someone can invade that personal space just by standing too close. Different ‘types’ of people are associated with different degrees of closeness however. A close family member can hug us and that is fine, while a stranger sitting beside us on a bus can feel invasive.

That concept of personal space is limited somewhat by the use of the word ‘space’ which prompts us to think in terms of physical proximity, and a bubble of ‘my space’ that surrounds the person’s body. Things get a little trickier when we feel our personal space has been intruded upon by loud noise from the next street for example. The source of the noise is way outside the range of any scope of what we typically understand as personal space. Yes, it travels and could be said to penetrate our space regardless of where it originated. But the example does point to the possibility that this space is not entirely a physical thing, or to put it another way, not solely about physical proximity.

Once we start considering personal space as something that does not necessarily need to be about physical space it frees us up to consider what that feeling of intrusion is like and how other experiences are similar. For that matter, though personal space tends to be discussed as something sacred which others intrude upon, it is also somewhere we allow people and experiences into. When someone you care about reaches for a hug, and you are happy to provide it, what does that feel like? Mostly we don’t really think about it. There are clear groupings in our head – people who absolutely are going to get a hug, people who maybe can get a hug in certain situations, people who we may somewhat stiffly hug briefly – your boyfriend’s aunt for example, and people we do not expect to hug ever. But it is clear there are Hug Rules and we have some sort of picture of who sits where in the ranks of huggability. What are the rules? Who sets those rules? Usually, you do. It is your space and you decide this person getting a hug is okay. Definitely not okay for a stranger in a shop or on the street, but perfectly okay for your daughter.

When we push that concept out a bit and think of it as the elements of the environment which are ‘of me’ in some way, we can view certain people as having more or less a part in what makes a person who they are, a role as an external component of their personal space. That helps account for why certain people have more or less ‘right of access’, but it also suggests that intrusions into their personal space are akin to intrusions into our own personal space, that they, being insiders if you like, carry a piece of our personal space with them.

Viewed in this way, the very glue that holds society, friendships, communities and family together, the sense of relatedness which is such a core human need, becomes an inherent part of the self, and allows us to be outraged that ‘one of us’ has been harmed even if we have never met that person.

The idea that autonomy and relatedness are basic human needs is well established, and the two are sometimes presented as conflicting forces. Here, we can view the reach and permeability of personal space as a way to describe relatedness. Autonomy, in the sense of both agency and volition, the freedom to act and to choose when, why, and how to act, then becomes an answer to the question: What are the rules?

Putting this together, we have a sense of self that extends beyond the physical body through the environment through the process of defining certain people and things to a greater or lesser degree as ‘of me.’ As this is at least felt to be by our own choice it is essentially autonomy at work, shaping our relatedness, and then through our relatedness accepting both constraints on and extensions to our agency. We to a certain degree choose to enact our autonomy through association. It is this extended self that allows us talk about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ – “we really did not play well in the second half” – as a fan of Manchester City who does not live in the UK, has never actually attended any City matches and hasn’t played football since they were a kid. It allows us share a sense of belonging. Our sense of self and our sense of belonging are intertwined not so much as conflicting forces but as mutually supportive forces that wax and wane in their immediate effect from situation to situation.

By building a sense of self in this way we necessarily go way past understanding the self as defined by our physical bodies or even the people and objects we associate with and reveal The Self as what it is – a concept. Being a concept is what allows us extend and contract it, change its permeability and how we respond to its interaction with the environment. It also allows us truly separate it from anything physical and bring into its reach things like beliefs and interests.

When we consider the things we feel some attachment to, some control over, some responsibility to, it quickly becomes evident that our memories, aspirations, imaginings and thoughts are very much part of that. What makes our self what it is includes all this and more, a cloud of gradually thinning density that can reach around the globe, capturing cultural or sub-cultural, religious, national, political, ethnic and other allegiances. I is not just contained within a multitude of different forms of We, but many forms of We are contained within I.

We can push this further. When we exercise our autonomy to manage this personal space, it applies to all aspects of our being, whether they be physical or not, and that includes a sense of control over how our time is used, not just our choice of goals but how we set about reaching them, the things we set out to communicate and the means we select to do that communication, the ‘thinking space’ we defend to cogitate and imagine and plan. We can label these in everyday ways as ‘space to speak’, ‘thinking time’, ‘me time’ or more formally as Personal Communicative Space and so on, but however we label them, they are part of a broader personal space, or perhaps what we could call the Personal World – everything we associate with and over which we feel we have some right to exercise a degree of control, or to which we are content to give up a degree of control. In both instances we are exercising autonomy through freely made choices, but also those choices are specifically about defining how appropriate we feel our relatedness to those things or people is.

Achieving some sort of perfect state of contented balance across the whole extended self, across that Personal World can be thought of as an extension of homeostasis beyond the confines of the body and also into wholly non-physical aspects of the self. Even in the traditional sense of balancing internal bodily systems, such balance is about a constant process of adjustment and most certainly as the sense of self is extended outward and inward, the likelihood of balance becomes less and less likely, and the complexity of maintaining that balance becomes a more and more complex task. I would suggest that we have a name for that constant urge to reach towards balance, and that word is stress.

Understanding stress in this way allows for the widely accepted notion ‘a little stress is a good thing’ – like a bit of exercise being good for you, and also space to allow for excessive stress to wear us down much as relentless physical effort on the one hand wears us down, while a total lack of physical activity leads to wasted muscles and weakened bones on the other. The extreme states are damaging, but some activity maintains a healthy system that oscillates gently around a balanced ideal.

And it is this movement away from an ideal state that is what matters here, because the purpose of this piece is to address the question of what emotion is, and how it operates, and answer that odd question posed at the start – How is emotion?

The original sense behind the word ‘emotion’ is to cause something to move, to put in motion, to impel into action. The idea of a moving experience, of being moved, as ways of expressing the effect of emotion are commonplace. This role of emotion as a driver of action has exercised many thinkers over the centuries – it can hardly be disputed that emotions lead people to act, to cease acting, or to change the way they act. There is a clear connection between emotion and action.

Referring to the model of a multi-stranded extended-self oscillating around a collection of physical and conceptual homeostatic ideal states, we can picture emotion as consciousness of divergence from homeostasis. I described this recently as “shades of the state of being conscious of being.” Essentially, I would contend that we experience emotion as we experience electromagnetic fields – it is only when the field change or we move through the field that we can detect it at all, as a tension through time between an expectation (that is, what we last experienced) and what we are currently experiencing. Comparing each against the homeostatic ideal gives not just awareness that there is a divergence but the rate and extent of that divergence, and the ‘direction’ of the divergence. Allowing for a degree of flexibility, a sort of comfort zone, movement beyond that range indicates an instability, which may require action – the emotion in question is thus engaged by the imbalance. Emotions are, of course, both positive and negative and have a range of intensity – feeling irritation, anger or fury depends on the extent to which the extended-self is unbalanced, and we can actively seek out imbalances that we feel remain sufficiently inside the scope of our control – riding a rollercoaster, going out for drinks with friends, joining the crowd at a football match – specifically in order to feel the imbalance created by handing over control to an external force and the pleasurable emotions that ensue.

That’s all fine in itself, but it depends on a number of factors to be in place in order to function safely, that is, to detect excesses in good time, assess the risk, and choose an appropriate remedy or none.

If the baseline – the homeostatic ideal – is miscalibrated (albeit, it has to be said, against some non-existent theoretical ideal) we have a problem. Everything referencing that baseline will be misread. A minor difference can be understood as part of what results in individuals being inclined to caution or risk, being what we call introverted or extroverted, having a cheery or dour demeanour and so on. Personality, in short. Given that there is no independent universal reference, we, being a social species, tend to use each other as a reference, reading the way others respond and act as a guide, allowing us to learn both where to place our baseline and also the extent to which our culture deems a given response and intensity of response to be appropriate. What gets called behaviour thus arises as the product of interplay between our experience, social references we encounter and how well we have learned to calibrate our baselines and manage our responses.

Needless to say, nobody is born with all this carefully calibrated machinery in place. It is learned. We develop increasing levels of emotional skill as we develop through infancy and childhood and indeed can continue to do so throughout life. Thus, the extent to which a person’s baselines are calibrated against the cultural norms of the society into which they are born and grow are dependent on their ability, inclination and opportunity to reference that information, to process it through feedback loops and test how effective that calibration is, and the kind of inputs they have access to. A person deprived of ongoing caring support in early life or subjected to traumatic experiences will be at increased risk of calibrating their baselines differently – perhaps dramatically so – compared to others in their society. Equally, how emotions are recognised, labelled and their cultural appropriateness will be dependent on external references. We can see the consequences of impediments to this learning process of calibration of baselines and responses in various ways such as the more gradual emotional development commonly seen among individuals blind or deaf from birth. It should be noted that this does not necessarily mean such infants are emotionally incapable as such, simply that they follow a different developmental path. It is more the mismatch between the opportunities presented and their capabilities that impairs development – such slowed development is not typical of deaf children raised by deaf parents for example.

The above examples point to variances in the learning process resulting from the absence of certain sensory input channels. Similar effects may arise through intellectual disability or through heightened sensory inputs. Again, the end result is not an impairment as such but a difference. The process of development may vary, and the resulting calibration may vary. What is significant in all these examples is not that the net result is different from the person’s peers but that each individual will seek out and calibrate to a state that ‘feels right.’

This is of the utmost importance, because that state of ‘feeling right’ represents precisely the interplay of relatedness and autonomy that calibrates baselines. When that process is impaired or the person is coerced into acting in line with baselines that do not represent that personal state of feeling right, the result is a state of chronic imbalance analogous to the sense of dysphoria felt by transgender people.

Externally-imposed efforts to teach ‘correct’ actions will necessarily conflict with the internal sense of what feels right. Not only will this be a slow process and unlikely to result in particularly useful outcomes, it will do psychological harm to the individual in multiple ways, and ultimately their own wellbeing will require that they cast aside the resulting miscalibration and revert to their own ‘correct’ baselines, which have not changed because the inputs against which they are calibrated have not changed. All that has happened is that a mask of learned actions has been applied by others, creating that dysphoria-like state. More, at the point this person seeks to revert to what ‘feels right’ they have lost crucial developmental time – perhaps years or even decades long – and thus inevitably are greatly disadvantaged in their ability to function within relationships and society as a whole. The resulting experiences may well, and sadly all too often do, only compound experiences of exclusion and ostracisation, and consequent chronic anxiety. Essentially, this is a ‘damned of you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario – maintain a mask that does harm or strip off the mask and experience harm.

In terms of preventing such outcomes it is clear that artificial or inappropriate teaching does no good and likely will result in lasting harm. Particularly in infancy and early childhood, play is the basis of learning combined with interpersonal engagement with close family members. In so far as those processes can result in positive outcomes for the individual, they must be calibrated by the person themself such that they ‘feel right’ and thus the meaning of the phrase child-led or person-led comes into real focus. What is appropriate for the individual is not something any other person can define, absent remarkable psychic powers. Trust is therefore an essential component of early childhood support. Despite enormous pressure to the contrary, the child’s developmental and wellbeing interests are best served by trusting that child to know their own needs, to facilitate their desires and exploration as far as safety allows and to put aside standardised plans of developmental milestones. No person is average, and many people not only diverge from average in multiple ways, those very divergences are expressions of the developing individual’s personality and characteristics.

This argument was assembled with the able assistance of:

Natacha Atlas with Mazeeka Ensemble, Ana Hina, 2008
Natacha Atlas, Ayesheteni, 2001
Parov Stelar, Seven and Storm, 2005
Negura Bunget, Maiestrit, 2010
Negura Bunget, ‘N Crugu Bradului, 2010
Parov Stelar, The Demon Diaries, 2015