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Excerpted from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Goleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 

"An emotion can pass from person to person silently, without anyone consciously noticing, because the circuitry for this contagion lies in the low road."

  Daniel Goleman,
Social Intelligence, Part 4

Take, for example, the cashier at a local supermarket whose upbeat patter infects each of his customers in turn. He's always getting people to laugh–even the most doleful folks leave smiling. People like that cashier act as the emotional equivalent of zeitgebers, those forces in nature that entrain our biological rhythms to their own pace.

Such a contagion can occur with many people at one time, as visibly as when an audience mists up at a tragic movie scene, or as subtly as the tone of a meeting turning a bit testy. Though we may perceive the visible consequences of this contagion, we are largely oblivious to exactly how emotions spread.

Emotional contagion exemplifies what can be called the brain's "low road" at work. The low road is circuitry that operates beneath our awareness, automatically and effortlessly, with immense speed. Most of what we do seems to be piloted by massive neural networks operating via the low road–particularly in our emotional life. When we are captivated by an attractive face, or sense the sarcasm in a remark, we have the low road to thank.

The "high road," in contrast, runs through neural systems that work more methodically and step by step, with deliberate effort. We are aware of the high road, and it gives us at least some control over our inner life, which the low road denies us. As we ponder ways to approach that attractive person, or search for an artful riposte to sarcasm, we take the high road.

The low road can be seen as "wet," dripping with emotion, and the high road as relatively "dry," coolly rational. The low road traffics in raw feelings, the high in a considered understanding of what's going on. The low road lets us immediately feel with someone else; the high road can think about what we feel. Ordinarily they mesh seamlessly. Our social lives are governed by the interplay of these two modes [see Appendix A for details].

An emotion can pass from person to person silently, without anyone consciously noticing, because the circuitry for this contagion lies in the low road. To oversimplify, the low road uses neural circuitry that runs through the amygdala and similar automatic nodes, while the high road sends inputs to the prefrontal cortex, the brain's executive center, which contains our capacity for intentionality–we can think about what's happening to us.

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