Art of the Living Dead, Chapter 13

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart.” — Helen Keller

What does it feel like to be alive? I am not talking about the cartoon version of ourselves that is always smiling on Facebook. Take a second to look at the real you. We spend so much time going through the motions, pretending to be alive, that I wonder if we really know how to answer that question.

Think about the last time you really felt alive. Maybe your mind lands on a memory of the first person who held your hand and the tingly sensation that accompanied that tender touch. Maybe you recall the reprieve of a vacation when the stress of life melted away and you truly relaxed for a few days. You might even recall a project that consumed your passion. As you worked, time disappeared and culminated in something you were immensely proud of. Perhaps you think of a piece of music that sends chills up your spine even after hearing it hundreds of times.

These experiences, these brushes with life, are few and far between. It would seem that feeling alive is the exception to actually being alive. Why would this be? Part of this puzzle has to do with our habitual suppression of emotion. We routinely stifle our feelings and protect the fragile parts of ourselves from exposure. Many of us choose numbness over feeling because that is the safe option. We don’t want the burden that accompanies being touched. Emotion is believed to be a sign of weakness, so we stifle our emotion to avoid appearing fragile. Who feels more pain, the pulseless zombie or the human who wears their heart on their sleeve? Sometimes we prefer to be zombies rather than feel the pain. Most of us have gotten quite good at defending ourselves from emotional discomfort.

Sometimes emotion sneaks past our defenses, however. Have you ever listened to a song that caught you by surprise at an especially vulnerable moment in the music? Without warning, the emotions burst within us. It sends a chill up your spine and might even bring a tear to your eye. The scientific name of this feeling is called frisson. Frisson is defined as “a sudden intense sensation of excitement, a shudder of emotion.”

Art has the ability to stir our emotions, inducing frisson, but it doesn’t happen to everyone. Two people listening to the same piece of music won’t experience the same tingle. It is estimated that almost half of us have never experienced music-induced chills. The reason frisson isn’t universally felt is because we are so skilled at suppressing our emotions. We monitor our feelings strictly, rarely granting permission to feel touched. When it slips past our filters it can feel like a violation. Once violated, we strengthen our defenses further.

The magician Teller observes the same response in people who don’t like magic. He explains that a convincing magic trick is “intense, though not altogether comfortable. Some people can’t stand it. They hate knowing their senses have fed them incorrect information. To enjoy magic, you must like dissonance.” Art, like magic, is inherently dissonant. It makes you confront ideas that you can’t possibly prepare for. The tingly feeling that accompanies particularly potent music is exciting, but it doesn’t feel good exactly. It is the feeling you get after surgery when the anesthesia wears off and you start to feel the limbs you forgot you had. The phantom emotions are heavy and raw. It’s as if you are a zombie whose heart starts beating again. The dead is brought back to life.

Scientists are unable to explain frisson. Trained to explain human behavior through evolution, researchers are baffled because music (and art) play no apparent role in the survival of a species. Evolution should have eradicated frisson from the human experience. So why do we still feel emotional shudders from music? Perhaps frisson actually is an evolutionary response. What if there is something inside us that held onto these feelings knowing that if we lost this connection to art our race would be lost? Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio puts it this way,

“Emotion is not a luxury: it is an expression of basic mechanisms of life regulation developed in evolution, and is indispensable for survival. It plays a critical role in virtually all aspects of learning, reasoning, and creativity. Somewhat surprisingly, it may play a role in the construction of consciousness.”

Emotion is a critical part of consciousness, of having a mind connected to our bodies. How we stifle or embrace our emotions is an important part of our decision to be zombies or humans. On my wedding day, standing in front of my closest friends and family, emotion overwhelmed me. I didn’t realize that the emotions had been building up, otherwise perhaps I could have released the pressure slowly and sooner. Instead as I walked out and saw my bride, Pachelbel’s Canon in D began to play and my tear valves burst and it ripped me open. At the moment when I wanted most to appear stable, I couldn’t keep it together. At the biggest photo opportunity in my life my face was covered in tears and snot. I was a wreck, but I was most definitely alive.

These words from Charles Dickens beautifully sum up the danger of stifling our emotions,

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

When was the last time you got choked up and had to hold back tears? Sometimes it happens at moments of observation of great beauty. Other times it might occur at seemingly ordinary moments as you watch your children play. Sometimes it happens when a story rips the thick scabs off our hearts. And of course there are times when tears are the appropriate reaction to pain, suffering, or loss.

When you get that feeling, the combination of prickly skin, throat lumpiness, and an itchy sensation at the corners of your eyes, you can usually shut it off in time. You learned long ago where that emergency shut off valve is located. Recognizing the symptoms early enough you can find the valve, give it a quick turn, and escape the embarrassment of having the tear escape your eyelids. Blink a few times and people rarely notice the excess moisture coating your corneas.

When did we learn this skill? Was it the first day of high school when you arrived too early and hid in the bathroom stall to avoid getting noticed in the halls all alone? Or earlier when the sight of tears gave grade schoolers an opportunity to pounce on you? Punishment is a quick teacher when the inability to hold the liquid in results in a beating. Perhaps it was even earlier when you first realized that your parents’ pattern of reward and punishment closely mimicked your crying routines.

Controlling our emotions is a useful skill. Being able to fool the people around us into believing everything is normal might make things easier, but at what cost? It protects us from bullies, saves us from embarrassment, and makes us look emotionally stable, but there is a danger that comes with stifling our emotions. When we repeatedly resist letting ourselves get touched by emotion we build callouses on the part of ourselves that make us human. If we get too good at stifling the moments when our emotions reach the surface we become numb. We rob ourselves of the chance to really feel alive. Emotion is not a devastating flaw of the human spirit that should be covered, it’s our greatest attribute. The ability to contain our emotion started as a defensive mechanism but has evolved into something else. It has turned some of us into zombies.

On the flip side of the emotional spectrum, the most obvious signal of a living human is a friendly smile. It wouldn’t kill us to smile more. Dale Carnegie got it right when he said,

“A smile costs nothing, but creates much. It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give. It happens in a flash and the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.”

People are amazingly perceptive when it comes to detecting emotion. Tears and smiles obvious clues, but other signals are extremely subtle. Humans have a highly refined ability to detect nearly imperceptible emotional cues. The slightest change in tone can alert us to whether a voice is agitated, afraid, joyful, trustworthy, or disappointed. It is the vulnerability, not the authority of a voice that fuses listeners to speakers.

When someone speaks from their heart it nails us to our seats, completely captivating us with the exposed honesty of their voice. When you hear it you can’t mistake it, and when someone tries to fake it we can tell. Zombies may try to mimic the sound, but our ear for authenticity is rarely fooled.

A human voice is even detectable in writing, and the internet has increased the range and importance of the written voice. We take it for granted that we can post an idea online and have it instantly accessible by virtually everyone on earth. It wasn’t that long ago when we were passive listeners of radio and watchers of television, satisfied with absorbing messages. The internet has unleashed the human voice and we are just starting to grasp this new power.

Making your voice heard takes courage, but when it happens a community forms and you realize that you aren’t alone. What was once the voiceless masses transforms into a mobilized population. It is easy to feel social media fatigue and forget how unprecedented it is to live in an time where humans have been so well connected.

Do you remember the first time you made an online post? What made you do it? Most likely, your first comment was accompanied by a strong emotion. Maybe you were furious. Maybe you were touched, thankful, relieved, or ecstatic. It takes strong feelings to move you from being a passive reader to an active participant. It wasn’t the first time you had these feelings, but it might be the first time it was so simple to respond and be heard. Perhaps hearing the sound of your voice echoing in the comments of a blog inspired you to start your own website. Discovering your voice is empowering.

This is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, there is opposition from institutions trying to protect their turf. We don’t realize just how much of a shock the voice of the individual has been to a world built around a monopoly where a few powerful institutions once controlled the voices we hear. While social media is beneficial to the individual, independent voices are a threat to systems that profit from a model where the population is silent.

Your voice is reshaping modern culture and we are seeing fundamental changes in the most influential areas of life: publishing, news, advertising, politics, religion, and entertainment. The zombies see your voice as a threat.

Unable to match the honest tone of online writing, newspapers kick, scream, and finally shut their doors. Online voices seem to routinely uncover “Rathergate” violations and the public’s trust in traditional media is at an all time low. We filter every news story we hear through our skepticism of media voices claiming to be unbiased.

News organizations are terrified because they know we don’t want to listen to empty suits any more. Mena Trott, the founder of Movable Type, a pioneering blogging platform said,

“I think the biggest impact of blogs on mainstream journalism is the presence of a more personal voice. The popularity of the personal tone used by bloggers has caused traditional media to realize it’s O.K. for some reporters to use ‘I.’”

News is changing because the human voice is an infectious sound that people want to hear. Business is changing as companies adapt to the emerging voice of a formerly-silent workforce. Some demand silence from their employees hoping their violations can remain unexposed. Customer service is being redefined by the fact tha a customer’s complaint can echo around the world in seconds. Many companies try to participate in social media, but their streams rarely ring with the sound of a human voice, instead they echo empty corporate talking points.

Zombies will tell you that raising your voice is arrogant, self-serving, or trivial. Institutions want to discredit the power of your voice because credibility equals power. Although a blog will never have credibility in the same way that network television once had, the legitimacy that comes from a networked community is vastly superior because it is achieved through the collaboration of minds with varying motives.

The human voice is our most potent weapon in the battle against zombies. The only thing that can stifle your voice is for you to not participate. Find your voice and use it with emotion, passion, and conviction. Raise your voice because you believe in your words and you want to make a difference. Your voice will travel far because the authenticity of your words aren’t burdened by outside influences.

Next week: Magic and the Illusion of Talent.

Want to keep reading? Art of the Living Dead is available in print or as an ebook for Kindle or iPad. For other chapters posted on Medium, start here.

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Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia

Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia