What are emotions?

May 2010 · 3 minute read

Over time I’ve encountered various theories and bits of information about emotions. Although I’ve gained some insights, I also remained discontent by not having been able to compress all that disparate information well enough. I was encouraged to write something about emotions by sark, and so I began researching them until I discovered the missing patterns needed to compress my knowledge in a satisfactory way.

Emotions as related to properties of percepts, whether external or internal. The properties, or features, of said percepts, by virtual control circuits in the brain. There are certain basic emotions that are present in all humans, many of them in other animals too. By learning associations between one’s actions and the environment’s responses, more elaborate structures get built. These structures could be thought of as consisting of circuits which take a percept and on recognising it, generate a “reward” (or another “percept”, to another such circuit, recursively). These structures implement emotional associations from any situation to, say, positive or negative expected reward (i.e. one could fear something one’s conditioned to)

Sometimes the emotions we feel are the primitive kind (fear, anger, happiness, etc.), other times they are subtle and even difficult to identify as “emotions”. This could be interpreted as the possession of either relatively simple’associations or of having long chains or networks of associations that direct your behaviour (e.g. procrastinating or otherwise not performing all that well in something worthwhile if on some level you believe you shouldn’t be ‘monomaniac’)

Physiological effects: while emotions need not involve the body, doing so will provide a way to signal to others if you, say, want to be alone, want company, etc.

Body language is important in human communication. Consciously managing all of your body would be impossible so the bodily effects of emotions can in this way also be used to give others a better, more reliable picture of yourself.

Another another reason for the physiological is that while emotions trigger certain actions, certain changes, they only reach so far, and only for so long. By altering the environment (the body), emotions effectively have a memory, since the physiological changes caused in turn also tend to cause the emotion to happen. Hence why smiling will make you feel happy even if you didn’t feel happy before smiling.

We are emotion machines. We need to have some way to prefer goal-achieving behaviours over others or there would be no reason to to do anything at all. One might think only “cold rationality” would suffice to do everything that emotions do, but ultimately there has to be a mechanism somewhere all the way down that voices its preference towards goal-fulfillment. Even “cold rationalists” need to have something “arbitrary” driving them: for humans this means having emotions. For non-humans, I’m not so sure. (Ben Goertzel argues that all minds have emotions in some form; I find it somewhat dubious, especially when he says all minds could experience “spiritual joy”)

Why do emotions feel the way they do? Emotions have to feel like something, otherwise they could not have a functional role in conscious deliberation. In some sense, the details of the emotion qualia are very arbitrary, just like the taste of food is arbitrary to an extent. So, if the details are arbitrary, what determines the “structure” or the coarse-grained features of the feelings associated with emotions? On this level, emotions simply feel the way that makes us want to do whatever made sense in the ancestral environment (the  evolutionary psychology explanation). For example, anger feels just the way that makes us want to, say, harm someone, if they persist in some behaviour we don’t like. This reaction makes sense for signalling, to give the other person a powerful incentive to stop whatever they were doing.

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