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Conjoining and disconjoining with another person

There was that strange moment again today when we said goodbye. He was with me, and then, a moment later, he was not.

My boyfriend still lives in the United States and he visited me in London this past weekend, arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving on Monday afternoon. We were inseparable for the 49 hours of his visit. After he would come out from the shower, I would say, "I missed you," and I would mean it, and he would say, "I missed you too." The cost of time, like any commodity, is raised when the supply is short.

So indeed I felt sad when he left on the Gatwick Express to be spirited back to America. But I felt something else too, which is perhaps more interesting. It was a cognitive, not an emotional, shift in my state: From conjoined to disconjoined.

This feeling is hard to capture in words and I wonder whether you, gentle reader, have experienced it too. You are with someone every moment, keeping this someone within an arm's reach at all times. You talk together, eat together, and you walk many many miles together. A lot of your attention and mental energy are deployed in the service of keeping track of your someone. When circumstances tear you apart at last, you feel a change in your consciousness, like shifting from hypnosis to waking, or from one dream to another. You are alone, and you are acutely aware of your aloneness.

As a scientist, I want to explain this feeling. It sounds, describing the feeling as I am, almost like a spiritual connection, qualified by spatial proximity. But as I view materialism and reductionism as presumptive, barring extraordinary evidence to the contrary, I find this account intellectually unattractive, even if it were phenomenologically sound.

I think we feel conjoined, and then disconjoined, because we can train ourselves to attend deeply and continually to a single object in our environment. The feeling of conjoining, for me, does not feel like a shift in state. To be sure, I feel happy to see a loved one, I probably get a big hit of oxytocin, I immediately fall into old ways of being that I've learned to adopt with that person. But the feeling of conjoining comes on only gradually. It comes on as I learn to deploy my attention in particular ways, as I train myself to focus on this new object. When I speak with him, I tune my mind to his way of thinking, to our common knowledge, to our inside jokes and shared history. When I walk with him, I am careful not to lose him in this huge city that is nearly as unfamiliar to me as it is to him. When I make decisions with him, my attentiveness to his preferences exceeds my attentiveness to my own because I am so deeply cognizant of how long and how far he has traveled to make them with me.

So in time, I come to reflexively attend to the thoughts and feelings and physical embodiment of this other person. And when he leaves, what is there left to attend to? We are now disconjoined, and this I can feel immediately. For a time my mind searches for him, without even trying, and it fails to locate him. Perhaps these failed searches are what make us so deeply aware of our aloneness, even as we are surrounded by more strangers than we could ever know.

Perhaps this is what it is like when a parent leaves a child at school for the first time. I do not remember what that experience was like from my child perspective, but I do remember the first time my dad left me on my own for several weeks. This was in high school, when I attended a summer program in Chicago, a 2-hour drive from our home in southeastern Wisconsin. He helped me to settle into my room, and then he left. I was looking out the window as he left, and he looked back at me from the outside. He later told me that he felt a deep sadness when he saw me looking toward him, perhaps because he thought I was miserable already. But in fact that was not what I felt. It was, I think, the first time that I felt disconjoined.

And perhaps this is one reason why victims of a kidnapper bond with their captors – Stockholm syndrome. I can only imagine what it is like to be totally in the power of someone else, utterly at their mercy. But doubtless this retrains the mind in profound ways. In all likelihood, a kidnapping victim would try desperately to track what the captor is doing, to peer as much as possible into the captor's mind, to know where the captor is. These seem to me like the elements of a conjoining. When released, the victim would not only experience regained freedom, but also a disconjoining from the captor.

I don't know whether this account is right, but I do think the experiences are real. Have you ever experienced conjoining or disconjoining?


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