[personal profile] sumeria
...I don't think it does what they say it does.

I'm not here asserting that the writers are lying/trying to deceive us by describing the effects of the switch as "shutting off all emotions"; I think they reached for a short, pithy way to explain the phenomenon, and I think some accuracy was sacrificed.

Consider: Damon clearly spent more than a hundred years living with his switch flicked, and he still loved Katherine. When Stefan was going through his libertine period, he still wanted Damon in his life badly enough to beg. And consider, too: every vampire we've seen in an "emotionless" state (Damon, Stefan, Isobel) has displayed a pretty profound tendency towards blood-soaked orgies and the like, which doesn't strike me as emotionless behavior per se.

That said, "switched" behavior does seem to be reasonably consistent across vampires, so whatever is going on, one should be able to define its parameters. I, being an enormous nerd who's overly invested in a tv show, and who is twitching with irritation over having to wait for the end of season, am interested in trying to work out exactly how vampire psychology/physiology are working here.




Since Rose told us that that switch stops working after a hundred years or so, I think all vampires older than the Salvatores have to be regarded as useless for investigating this question; we just don't know enough about any of their youthes. Further, I don't think we can say that we ever saw either Vicki or Caroline operating with the switch flipped; Caroline still seems in full possession of herself, and at the very least, there was no discussion of "turning off emotions" that we saw anyone have with Vicki. I'm also going to disregard Anna's bartending vampire minion; I don't think we know enough about him to know if he had himself switched or if he was just naturally kind of an asshole.

Which leaves us with Stefan, Damon, and Isobel as potential subjects for the main part of the inquiry. For purposes of clarity, when I say "switch on" I mean in sociopathic blood-soaked orgy state, and when I say "switch off" I mean in default emotional state.

One of the things I really like about this show is its use of semi-unreliable narrators; that is, we get tons of information, but the writers do a good job of remembering that it's all from someone's point of view, and limited by their own knowledge and understanding. So what do we actually know? We know that the default state for vampires is to experience all their emotions dialed up to eleven, more or less. They all report that experience pretty consistently, that they feel everything humans do, but much, much more strongly. We also know that they find themselves feeling some things that humans definitely don't; Stefan describes what "hunger" feels like to him on a couple occasions, and it's not what my experience of hunger is like at all. Stefan, granted, is an addict, but in combination with Caroline's remark to Liz that her "basic instinct" now is to kill, I feel pretty comfortable saying we can say that vampires have feelings and drives and wants and instincts that they didn't have as humans, and which seem to them to be as strong or stronger than their other feelings/instincts.

Either way, it seems to me clear that vampires who aren't policing their behavior both want things that humans just don't want and do things humans probably wouldn't do. (By which I mean "rip other people's throats out and drink their blood". It is, to a vampire, the instinctive, normal reaction to some scenarios.) At that, we got an admission from Stefan back in season 1 that vampires like to stalk, to hunt, to terrorize their pray, which is certainly born out by Damon's general behavior. In general, a vampire seems to have a higher quotient of both sadism and hedonism than most human people. (See: blood-soaked orgies.)

Thing is, when I think "emotionless" I don't think "sadistic hedonist". At all, really. Also, vampires who are switched on can clearly still get angry, which is definitely an emotion. Also, I would argue that all three test cases clearly still experience "love". It's hard for me to explain Isobel compelling Alaric to get over her as anything but a gesture of some kind of feeling. Likewise, I don't really feel like Stefan's desperate clinging to his brother was some kind of intellectual need. I'm sure I need say nothing about Damon's Thing for Katherine.

So all of that inclined me to wonder if the switch they described as "turning off their emotions" was actually doing something more like turning off their empathy. Actually, I'm willing to argue that whatever it does, it definitely does that; Isobel and Stefan seem pretty clearly to demonstrate that a vampire with the switch flipped is pretty incapable of registering other people as people.* Damon is kind of a more complicated case; he spent more time with his switch on than either of the others, if only because he's older than Isobel, but more-- it's pretty clear, to me, that somewhere in season 1 his switch just stopped working for him.

We know from Rose that that happens, and more, I really cannot find any spot in the narrative of season 1 where it looks like Damon would have made anything like a choice to start feeling things again. Particularly given some of his recent actions in season 2 (Jessica, Andie) it seems pretty clear that he would, at least on some level, like to stop feeling things, and that he can't. Now, it is possible, I suppose, that he's unwilling to give up the way he feels about Elena (as per Lexi's assertion to Stefan that inability to feel love is a price of flipping the switch) but that doesn't really seem likely to me. I will now not get derailed into a long discussion of the kind of effects leaving the switch on for a century could have on a person, and why I think he's actually making shocking swift progress at reclaiming his decent-person-ness and so on.

Anyway, the one really consistent thing all the vampires say about their switch is that they don't feel pain when it's not. Pain, loneliness, guilt-- those seem to be the big things that they're trying to get rid of by flipping it. Now, guilt we could explain with the empathy hypothesis. If you don't empathize, if your father doesn't seem to you like a person, than presumably you're not tearing yourself apart over that time you accidentally killed and ate him. Loneliness-- I think Anna either said or implied to Jeremy that you could get rid of that by flipping the switch, but honestly, based on Stefan's reaction to the idea of Damon leaving him, I'm gonna say that doesn't happen.

But the real sticking point for me is pain. Total lack of ability to empathize with people doesn't cause the person so lacking to cease to feel (emotional) pain. (Why yes, I *did* use to read books on antisocial personality disorders, why do you ask?)

Mind you, Damon doesn't make a stellar case for "experiencing no pain". His anger and resentment of Stefan make a ton more sense if their fueled by hurt, but he does more or less explicitly say to Jeremy that the switch makes you not hurt. What I find myself wondering, though, is if what it does is make you not care. If the switch doesn't turn off their emotions, just destroys all their inhibitions and makes them give not a crap about much of anything. Basically, I'm theorizing that it's the morphine of the soul. That it deadens, but doesn't actually destroy sensation. That it makes them impulsive, and prone to act on whim, and instinct. And also possibly high as a kite. (Really, my experience with illegal drugs is insufficent here; I don't know if the effect I'm looking for is that of a narcotic, or an opiate.)

Problems with this theory: Isobel.
Evidence for this theory: Stefan.

Otoh, people do demonstrably react to mucking about with their brain chemistry in different ways, so neither of them is conclusive there. But I certainly think the theory fits the evidence a bit better than the "no emotions" explanation does. Does this seem reasonable to anyone else, or am I overthinking?




*I am here using 'empathy' more or less as a synonym for 'conscience', which for most people, functions based on emotional responses grounded in empathy. It is totally possible to have an entirely reason-based, non-empathic system of morality/conscience, but it is wildly atypical. For most people, a moral impulse is an emotional/empathic impulse.
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sumeria

May 2013

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