In my last post, I presented the strange but true story of my daughter’s stuffed gorilla, which disappeared for 5 days after our kittycat Persephone passed from this life. I suggested there might be a more-than-coincidental association between Persephone’s departure from our lives and this other absence. As it happens, both ‘creatures’ were small, black, and furry; and both were loved by my daughter (the former being loved by the other members of our household, too).
One of the few people I shared the story with at the time is veterinarian Michael Fox, author of the nationally syndicated column “The Animal Doctor.” Dr. Fox related his concept of the empathosphere, which he proposes to be “a universal realm of feeling that can transcend both space and time.” The seemingly miraculous accounts of pets who traverse long distances to reunite with their owners he attributes to the empathosphere, suggesting that non-human animals are more empathic than people and partake of this natural realm of feeling more readily than human beings.
Dr. Fox’s belief that other mammals feel things more intensely than we do is supported by a growing number of researchers. As we saw in the first post of this series, other mammals likely possess a purer form of awareness given that they don’t filter their experiences though language, with all the cogitation that language lends itself to. Whereas a non-human animal is likely to feel everything ‘closer to the bone’ (undiluted excitement, fright, alarm, affection, contentment, boredom, annoyance), we humans – at least the adults – are apt to explain our feelings to ourselves, or discount them in the course of business or within polite society.
The empathosphere has a counterpart in other terms. Telesomatic was coined by psychiatrist Berthold Swartz (and popularized by author Larry Dossey). It refers to spontaneously feeling the pain of a loved one at a distance, without the conscious knowledge that the other person is suffering. The psychesphere is a parallel concept of Bernard Beitman, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He conceives of the psychesphere as “something like our atmosphere – around us and in dynamic flux with us. We breathe in oxygen and nitrogen and water vapors, and we breathe out carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and more water vapors…Our thoughts and emotions contribute to the psychesphere and our thoughts and emotions are influenced by it.”
What I find so arresting about situations akin to what my daughter and my family experienced is their intimate connection with feelings – and not just surface feelings or feelings that quickly pass but more profound feelings that relate to the bonds between people, or the bonds between people and their pets. As Dossey points out, telesomatic events “almost always take place between people who share empathic, loving bonds—parents and children, spouses, siblings, lovers.” These experiences arise wholly unexpected; when they do, they can shake even a die-hard skeptic to the core. Such an example was offered recently by the author Michael Shermer, whose worldview (expressed in such books as Why People Believe Weird Things) leaves no room for the anomalous. What happened to Shermer and his bride is so bizarre that it could only be chalked up to sheer one-in-a-million chance were it not for its conjunction with deep emotion.
You can read the account here but, in a nutshell, this is what transpired. Shortly after saying their wedding vows, Shermer and his new wife Jennifer walked to the back of their house to be alone for a few minutes. They heard a love song wafting through the air but had no idea where it could be coming from. The source turned out to be a 1970s transistor radio owned by Jennifer’s deceased grandfather, her closest father figure growing up in Germany. On this, her wedding day, “being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away.” Unaccountably, this ancient radio that Shermer had not been able to fix sprang to life from the back of a desk drawer.
As Shermer writes, “the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval…I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels…I savored the experience more than the explanation.” Feeling stupefied is the most genuine reaction one can have in a situation like this. It’s exactly what my wife and I felt when my daughter’s stuffed animal reappeared on the floor by her bed. That both these experiences took place in the wake of profound feelings and passages I take to be more than coincidental.
Furthermore, there’s good reason to suppose that non-human animals play as much a role in the empathosphere or psychesphere as human beings. As was referenced in an earlier post, all mammals are remarkably similar emotionally – we come equipped with the same fundamental neurology and physiology. The variations among us are, as Darwin posited, differences in degree rather than kind. It’s bad biology, therefore, to assume that a capability we possess another sentient creature does not.
In the next post of this series, I’ll look at some essential capacities we and other mammals may share, and which point, in turn, to our shared spirituality.
Dossey, Larry. Healing Beyond the Body. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Dossey, Larry. Reinventing Medicine. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
Fox, Michael W., “The Nature of Compassion” in The Smile of a Dolphin, ed. Marc Bekoff. New York: Discovery Books, 2000.
Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1997.