My Friend, I Know How You Feel

Neva at poetry workshopBy Neva Bodin

“A new study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us.”

When my oldest daughter was about two, I dreamed one night that I was her, and that I had awakened in my bed and started to cry because my pillow had fallen on the floor. Still in the dream, I then realized it was on my bed after all, and was in the process of laying my head down, when a cry awakened the real me, and I became a mom again. As I automatically rose from the bed in response to my daughter’s cry, my husband moved as if he was getting up too. I automatically said, “It’s all right, she just thinks she lost her pillow.”

As I padded my bare feet through the house toward her bedroom, I became fully awake and thought, “How silly. I can’t possibly know that; I just dreamed that.”

When I got into my daughter’s bedroom, she was half-heartedly crying and said, “I lost my pillow.”

Noticing her pillow still on her bed, I replied, “No you didn’t Honey, it’s right there.” She laid her head down and fell back asleep.

Now I was really awake! What just happened here? I wondered. And, having always been afraid of the dark, I was spooked. Since I had to pass the utility room door, which led to the dark room, basement, and garage, to get back to our bedroom, I felt the need to barricade that door to be safe. Unreasonable? Sure. To someone not blond maybe.

I piled the bathroom scale on top a waste basket and placed it in front of the utility room door. That way if someone sneaked in, they’d make a racket. Now safer, I went back to bed. But the memory remains.

This may be known as thought transference. But the study referenced above, done by measuring reactions on an fMRI between friends when one friend is threatened, got me to thinking of that episode. (An fMRI is functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a way of measuring activity in the brain.)

Now apparently they have scientific evidence that people can feel what friends and loved ones feel. I’m not sure they are talking the same fruit here with what happened between my daughter and me, (you know the old apples versus pears), but we can have such a strong empathy for others, we can experience what they do in certain instances.

The study appears in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and according to the website: “The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

What a great piece of knowledge to have when writing fiction. A scientific basis for the empathy and understanding we can create between characters.

empathy friendsAnd also, to know that when friends or family are under attack by illness, others, or by putting themselves down, we will feel the stress also.


15 thoughts on “My Friend, I Know How You Feel

  1. Neva, I’ve done this a lot over a lifetime. That you experienced what your daughter was feeling, or the other way around is fascinating. Isn’t it funny how science is catching up to what we instinctively seem to know? Doris


    1. It is, and imagine it was an expensive study! With our developing “wireless” ways of communicating, I don’t think we should be surprised that our brains are already capable of being wireless and we may have just lost the ability to utilize that capability most of the time. There’s a lot that’s not visual between people, such as feelings of love or connection. Thanks for the comment.


  2. When I was in college, one of my friends was pregnant. Occasionally, I woke up in the morning feeling sick to my stomach and thought I had her morning sickness. Later after putting two and two together, I realized this was a side effect of the birth control medication I was taking.


  3. I’ll never forget an incident that happened to me way back in junior high (for young people, that’s what we had before middle schools became the norm). I was the manager of my school’s football team and one day I was sitting in the coaches’ office waiting for practice to end so I could do my assigned closing tasks. For reasons I could not voice, I felt a strong urge to call home. I had nothing to tell anyone or ask anyone, but still I picked up the phone and called home. Instead of my mom or dad, my brother answered. He asked me how I knew to call. I asked what he meant. He told me my sister had gone into premature labor and was in the hospital. This was long before advancements would have made it likely they could have saved the baby, so she died.

    I still wonder about what it was that made me call. It might have been an angel, or it might be this phenomenon you describe. Either way, it was a little scary.


    1. Interesting experience. With this blog, I am hearing about more of these type things, in my personal email too. I believe we have this “wireless” communication built in but perhaps just do not recognize it, or have lost the ability to be cognizant of it. And since I believe God, or the Holy Spirit, communicates wirelessly, I wonder at my wonder when this happens. Thanks for the comment.


  4. I’ve experienced nothing like you describe for someone alive. But I did have an eerie dream shortly after my Grandpa Frog died in January 1987 where I was walking up the stairs in his house. He was at the landing waiting for me. He hugged me. That hug felt so real, like no other dream I’ve ever experienced. The story behind this? I taken a last-minute flight trying to get up to NE Ohio to say goodbye to him, but he died while I was in the air.


  5. That is a great dream, and obviously since you were close to your grandfather, he may have made contact through that dream. In the Bible, dreams were a common way to communicate with the spiritual world, so perhaps…. Our minds are probably more open to this during sleep. I am finding a lot of people experience a need to call someone when there’s a problem with that someone, even when not physically in the same place. We are fascinating creatures. Thanks for the comment.


  6. One family member in each of four generations has had similar abilities, answering the phone before it rings when a daughter goes into labor, hearing a man calling for his child in the middle of the night and later learning the man died that night. So I’ve always believed such things are possible. Interesting to know there’s a scientific basis. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” Good post.


  7. You gave me the shivers when I read your comment. And I love the quote you included. Yes, I think we have much to discover yet about “life”. And death. Fascinating fact about your family. Thanks for the comment.


  8. Connections, spiritual and emotional, are strong, I believe. My dad has been dreaming a lot about his best friend when they were young and my mom has dreamed alot about her mother. Whenever I feel a “niggle” about someone, I always try to stop what I’m doing and pray for them. It’s amazing the connections we have to people we love and how those connections manifest themselves. Great post, Neva!


  9. The research you’ve indicated is very good reading, Neva. Thanks also for the idea that it can be used regarding the writing of our characters. 🙂
    I think there have always been some people who have been more able to sense than others. I also think that, as a race, humans have learned too well to suppress many of our inbuilt natural instincts. Denial of the possibility of ‘connections’ doesn’t actually mean they can’t happen. The ‘mother/child ‘ connection is almost unfathomable at times, yet most new mothers (I think and hope) experience that continuity of awareness of the well being of the child long after the child is born.


  10. My mother and I had that. I could feel when she was strongly thinking of me, even though I was 1200 miles away. She could tell if I was upset over somwthibg, without ever talking to me. Cher’ley


  11. I wonder if you also noticed your daughter’s panic because you were sleeping and the other senses such as sight were at rest. Perhaps sleep opened a door to the sixth sense of perception. Animals seem to be able to communicate to each other without the use of words. I once spent three months in a cabin with a beagle. We ended up communicating quite well, often knowing what the other wanted. I love that short period of my life.


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