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  • Writer's pictureHeather Simmons

Swallowing Clouds

I've known for quite a while that my emotional response to beautiful things isn't normal. It all started with clouds when I was about seven. Beautiful, puffy, cotton candy-like fluffs slowly rolled above me in the most fantastic way. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, trying with all my might to inhale the clouds into my body. I didn't want to eat them, mind you. I wasn't interested in swallowing and digesting the beauty; it didn't make me hungry. I wanted the clouds to become a part of me, to take them in not just with my eyes but with my body. Because I was seven, I assumed this was a completely normal reaction to beauty. I mentioned my experience to my neighbor, whose mouth gaped open and eyelids blinked audibly.

I decided to keep these moments to myself from then on, because you know, it was awkward. It took me over twenty years to find my "oh, you too?" tribe of crazy people.

Let's segue to the crazed social media present tense.

I follow many talented fiber artists on Instagram. One of my favorites is Elizabeth Pawle. She posted a photo of a tapestry she'd just finished and mentioned that the color looked so delicious that she just wanted to swallow it. Thirty-five people commented about having the same physical reaction to the sight of beauty. The post was littered with "Yes! I always want to eat things that are beautiful!" and "I thought I was the only one who wanted to inhale pretty things" and "YES!!! Me too! My brain always wants to swallow yummy-looking things."

Y'all. I found my tribe. Please keep in mind these weren't responses to cupcakes or chocolate. This was fiber. Yarn. Brightly hued, curated color with brilliant texture excites my eyes so much that my body wants to take the whole scene in by other means. And I just found out I'm not alone! There are other crazy people who feel the SAME way! I was so delighted I told my husband all about it. His mouth gaped open and eyelids blinked audibly. Whatever man.

This discovery of like-mindedness immediately drove me into research mode. I have logged hours and hours of screen time trying to find out why this happens to some of us but not to all of us. Because guess what? While some of you are giddy with excitement in experiencing a "wait, you too?!" moment, most of you have no idea what I'm talking about. And that's ok. While I haven't been able to find any research on vibrant color or stunning scenery and differing physical responses, (PSA: I'm happy to sign up as a candidate for this research should any brilliant scientist read this post) the most approximate studies I can find involve "dimorphous expression in response to cute stimuli".

A Yale study I read explains it in the abstract portion of their findings in the best layman terms possible, so I'm just going to unashamedly cite two paragraphs of their work. Here goes:

"Extremely positive experiences, and positive appraisals thereof, produce intense positive emotions that often generate both positive expressions (e.g., smiles) and expressions normatively reserved for negative emotions (e.g., tears). We developed a definition of these dimorphous expressions and tested the proposal that their function is to regulate emotions. We showed that individuals who express emotions in this dimorphous manner do so as a general response across a variety of emotionally provoking situations, which suggests that these expressions are responses to intense positive emotion rather than unique to one particular situation. We used cute stimuli (an elicitor of positive emotion) to demonstrate both the existence of these dimorphous expressions and to provide preliminary evidence of their function as regulators of emotion.

Some people cry at graduations, at the birth of their children, when a hero returns from war, when they reach their goals, and when someone gives to another person unselfishly. Some concertgoers scream as if in horror in the presence of their teen idol, and some people playfully growl and express their desire to pinch a baby’s cheeks. What these diverse situations have in common is that these positive experiences have elicited dimorphous expressions—not only positive expressions, but also expressions normatively associated with negative emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, and fear; Ekman & Friesen, 1971, 1986). During these dimorphous displays, both positive and negative expressions occur simultaneously in a disorganized manner, which leaves witnesses to rely on the context of the situation to interpret them (Carroll & Russell, 1996; Zaki, Hennigan, Weber, & Ochsner, 2010)."

--Oriana R. Aragón, Margaret S. Clark, Rebecca L. Dyer, and John A. Bargh

Yale University

I'm sure almost all of you women out there have said something along the lines of "this baby is so cute I could just eat it" while you gritted your teeth and balled up your fists. Those are actually aggressive things to do, which is the opposite of how you're feeling. You, my baby-loving friend, are experiencing dimorphous expression.

Essentially, your brain elicits dimorphous expression when an emotion is overwhelming. While I'm no brilliant scientist, I'm going to apply this research to my own experience and venture to say that the beauty I take in at times is so stunning, so incredibly overwhelming to my mind, that it produces a need to inhale it or eat it as a way of coping with just how gorgeous it is. That's mind blowing to me! Inanimate objects are so serenely special to me that my brain gets overwhelmed by them. Isn't that incredible?!

I become extremely grateful if I think about this for even a minute. How wonderful a world we live in that beauty is still overwhelming. In a time filled with such ugliness and hate, with so many terrifying events, it's a wonder that we haven't become numb to beauty. The fact that a sunset, the perfect shade of blue, or a sweet round-faced baby can send our brains into overload astounds me. Parts of our experience can still be awesome in the original sense, and that makes me thankful. I am so very pleased that we can still be surprised by things.

Stand in the sunshine today and take it all in. Look at those saturated clouds and try to grasp the beauty of it all. And let me know if you inhale deeply.

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