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Kama Muta: Being Moved by Love

New insights from science about an emotion that’s as old as time.

Key points

  • Kama muta is a term derived from Sanskrit that means moved by love.
  • Experiencing kama muta inspires people to be compassionate, loving and connected.
  • When love becomes suddenly intense or salient to us, it can give rise to kama muta.
  • Kindness from others and even compassion towards yourself can make you feel kama muta.

“Sometimes I think,
I need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”

— Sanober Khan

Watching a mama chimpanzee reunite with her newborn after a traumatic birth can leave humans with hearts cracked open, eyes blurry with tears, skin covered with goosebumps, and insides tangled with hard-to-identify emotions. Is it sheer relief of seeing the mother clutch her alive, cooing baby to her chest? Is it vicarious joy? Empathy? Agony for what could have been?

It’s kama muta.

Researchers at the University of Oslo’s Kama Muta Lab define kama muta as “the sudden feeling of oneness, love, belonging, or union with an individual person, a family, a team, a nation, nature, the cosmos, God or a kitten.” There’s a lot to uncover about an emotion that’s as old as time and, yet, one that’s only now being put under the microscope of science. To begin with – its name.

“We could have called it Emotion Z or Emotion 76,” says Alan Fiske, UCLA professor of psychological anthropology and one of the co-leaders of the lab. “But that’s not very elegant.” Wishing to avoid the “baggage” associated with vernacular terms, they turned to a dead language, Sanskrit.

Kama in Sanskrit is love, muta is moved. Kama muta – moved by love.

Source: CC0/Pixabay/Mylene

It remains a mystery to scientists like Fiske why our languages don’t always capture the richness of our experiences and why they don’t more precisely pay tribute to this universal emotion. Fortunately, even without the help of phonemes and syntax, humans will always continue being moved by love. So, next time your heart momentarily stretches wider than you imagined possible, rejoice in the belonging. In Mary Oliver’s words, the world could be “announcing your place in the family of things.”

Here’s Alan Fiske on kama muta.

MP: What is one of your most surprising insights from your research on emotions?

AF: Most people assume that humans are able to clearly distinguish their emotions and have names for every emotion they feel. But that’s not true. I’m now persuaded that the taxonomies provided by language don’t correspond well to the actual experiences that people have. In other words, our names for our emotions don’t necessarily map onto our emotions. We might use one word, like jealousy, to refer to multiple kinds of emotional experiences. Or, we might use different words to describe the same experience.

The term kama muta delineates a distinct emotion that people call by different names in different situations. In English, you might call kama muta the feeling of team spirit when your team is winning, feeling patriotic, love towards God, or even cute kittens. It wouldn’t occur to people that they are talking about the same emotion, because the contexts are vastly different.

MP: How can we tell that we are experiencing kama muta?

AF: Kama muta has a distinct subjective profile in terms of feelings and physiology. To know whether someone is experiencing kama muta, you could inquire:

  • Are you feeling positive? (for example, Are you happy to have this experience? Would you want to have it again?)
  • Do you have moist eyes?
  • Do you have goosebumps or chills?
  • Are you choked up (have a lump in your throat)?
  • Are you experiencing a warm feeling in the left side of your chest?

These are common sensations of kama muta. Yet, they are not invariant; people don’t always feel all of these sensations. Kama muta is also characterized by caring, affectionate motives such as wanting to hug somebody, to protect and nurture, to hold the little animal and take care of it, to call their grandmother and say how much they love her. In other words, experiencing kama muta inspires people to be compassionate, loving and connected. In technical terms, people feel motivated to nurture existing communal relationships. Kama muta can also open people to new communal relationships. The emotion itself may only last a few seconds. But the motivation that emerges could endure for minutes, days, or even years.

While kama muta is experienced as a positive emotion, the larger context where it occurs can be positive, neutral or negative. For example, attending my mother’s memorial service was very sad. But when people stood up to express how much they loved my mother, I felt this positive emotion of kama muta.

MP: What is the evolutionary purpose of kama muta?

Source: CC0/Pixabay/Angela

AF: While we don’t know for certain, we hypothesize that kama muta evolved as part of a specifically mammalian adaptation. Mammals give birth to small and vulnerable offspring. Since their newborns can die of cold or hunger quickly and are vulnerable to predators, they need to be protected, kept warm, safe, and fed. Hence, mammal mothers must be willing to sacrifice their needs and put their offspring first. I believe, herein lie the deep phylogenetic roots of kama muta: this emotion grew out of maternal love, which has to be instantaneous and strong enough to overcome all other motives. As humans evolved, we honed the capacity to feel this emotion not only towards our babies, but towards others near and far, animals, divinity, our nations, even music and the arts.

MP: How is kama muta related to love?

AF: When love becomes suddenly intense or salient to us, we feel kama muta. It’s not how much I love my grandsons, but how much my attention is drawn to that love, for example, when they climb into my lap. Love is a vernacular term. In technical terms, kama muta occurs when communal sharing relationships suddenly intensify. By intensify we mean when we become more aware of the communal sharing or when such relationships are created anew. For example, when a stranger is kind to me and looks out for me, I might feel kama muta.

MP: What are some of the necessary ingredients that give rise to this emotion?

AF: Kama muta can emerge from various perspectives. If a stranger or a friend is suddenly kind to me, I can feel kama muta. We’d call this second person kama muta: somebody else does something that makes the connection salient. I can also feel kama muta when I see a sleeping baby and my heart goes out to it. This is first person kama muta: the feeling is coming out of me. There’s also third person kama muta, which is when you see a soldier coming home to her family and her dog joyously jumping into her arms. Thus, you can get this emotion when somebody shows love to you or to someone else – including strangers or fictional characters.

Source: CC0/Pixabay/CDD20

Moreover, we can feel this emotion through mindful self-compassion. For example, if you’ve been harsh with yourself, and then you’re able to overcome that and feel caring about yourself – perhaps even wish to give yourself a hug – this self-compassion can make you feel reflective kama muta.

MP: How would it help us to know about kama muta and in general, to understand our emotions better?

AF: Having a concept of kama muta enriches our lives because it enables us to recognize it, communicate it, and subsequently to cherish and remember it more. There’s a recursive effect: when I feel kama muta and tell you about it, you’re likely to feel it from hearing my story. While before I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, now when I begin to feel kama muta, I stop and savor the experience. Oftentimes, this is what artists try to convey with their creations. Having a concept of kama muta helps them express it better.

Knowledge can also be validating. It’s nice to know that when we feel touched to tears by something we witness, it’s a universal experience shared by all humans. Without this knowledge, we might have rejected or ignored our feelings. It’s meaningful for people to know that what they have been experiencing is real. And that there’s a word for that.

Many thanks to Alan Fiske for his time and insights. Professor Fiske is a psychological anthropologist at UCLA and at the Kama Muta Lab at the University of Oslo. His books include Kama Muta: Discovering the Connecting Emotion.

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