Fringe: Virulent Emotions

By Eric Wolff | April 23, 2009 5:58 pm

Screenshot from FringeFirst, I want to assure anyone who’s not been to New York City that Grand Central station is never as empty as it was in Tuesday’s episode of Fringe. I’ve been there at 4 a.m., and even then, I’ve never been alone on the platform. I know it was a dream sequence, but I thought you should know.

Moving on (and spoilers below). The linchpin of the episode was a character who, thanks to the experimental and fictional) Cortexifan treatment he received as a child, developed the ability to spread his emotions to people nearby. When he’s depressed and considering suicide, a nearby person might consider, say, jumping in front of the No. 7 Train (which is the most reliable train in New York. Again, just trying to be helpful here).  Obviously, here in the real world, emotions can’t be aggressively spread to random strangers…well, unless they’re looking at you…and talking to you… and generally interacting with you. OK, they can be spread to random strangers, just less strongly.

There’s a tower of research amply demonstrating that human groups respond to each other’s emotional moods.   We read other people for facial expressions, posture, and gestures and we respond by modifying our own responses to fit theirs. The tone and word selection of people we are talking to also influences our moods, especially when these people use strong negative terms like “hate” or “awful.” Recent research even shows that these emotional cues other people give off trigger different reactions in the parts of our brains that govern emotional response.

But those are all small group or person-to-person interactions. In December, Harvard and UC-San Diego scientists published findings showing that happiness can even spread across large groups. Their 20-year study of 4,739 people, they showed that happiness spread across different small group sub-units of the larger sample. A happy person could affect the moods of people with three degrees of separation.

But in Fringe we understand that the reverse-empathetic effect is caused by Cortexifan, an experimental drug from Walter Bishop. As yet, there are no drugs that amplify our ability to impose our emotions on others, but there’s a whole class of them that do amplify our ability to respond. Entactogens or empathogens (the debate rages over the proper name) are a whole class of drugs that improve our ability to empathize with those around us. The most famous member of this group, Ecstasy, has been heavily studied for its legendary ability to make people love one another, which is why it gets the fabulous nickname, the Hug Drug. You know when a nickname makes it’s way into scientific papers, it’s fabulous. Also, no longer cool. Again, just trying to help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Psychology, TV

Comments (8)

  1. Ben

    Would you please do me the honour of writing about movies more and TV shows a bit less? Thanks.

  2. CelticMinstrel

    Just pointing out a small error: “…Ecstasy, has been heavily studues for its ability legendary ability…” <– You have ability twice.

  3. Ben – We write about TV shows in part because they’re such a consistent source for posts. Nearly every episode offers some fodder to write about. So I won’t promise to write less about TV. But you’re right, I’ve been remiss on the movie front. I’ll try and ramp that up.

    CelticMinstrel – thanks. Will fix.

  4. I like what you write… dunno the rest, good work.

  5. Ben

    Yeah no offense dawg. I love this blog, but I especially love the movie posts. It’s rare that I’ve ever seen an episode of a TV show that you write about.

  6. Science_Boy

    But if Grand Central Station is never that empty, then when did they shoot the scene? If they were really at that location, it had to be that empty sometime.

  7. They get a permit that lets them block off an area. I’ve seen it happening. They go lat at night, when traffic is reduced, and they get a permit from the city to shoot there. Also, there’s an unused subway platform beneath Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn where movies often go to shoot subway platform scenes (I’m pretty sure the Matrix was shot there, among many others). There’s even a subway train they can run in and out of the station.

  8. karen

    I enjoyed your writing on Fringe. I enjoy the story line but as far as the empathy or no empathy issue do you mean social cues, body language, genetic dispositions, or strickly cognitive thinking? Would that be a conditional empathetic process based on peers.

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