notional oceans of emotional potions

30.5 x 41 cm. oils on canvas. painted by SRS in 2012 entitled ReconciliationWhat are emotions, and what are they for?

Are they biochemical states, activities, behaviours, feelings, psychological states, all of the above or none of the above?

In the view that emotions are the "mere" epiphenomena* of biochemical/physiological change, "anger" or "fear" are just the words we use to describe states of the human body featuring among other things relatively high levels of adrenalin in the bloodstream. And "love" is just the word we use to describe the state featuring relatively high levels of endorphins in the brain, among other things!

Among the other things included in "among other things" are the physical activities/behaviours associated with emotions, eg physical aggression in the case of fear or anger. In the extreme view, sexual activities/behaviours are the manifestations of the biochemical state to which one refers by deploying the word "love".

I don't think it solves anything to describe an emotion as a "feeling" or "psychological state": it simply pushes the question out further. And even if we could come up with a clear, tight definition of "feeling" or "psychological state", we would still be no closer to capturing the essential nature of what we experience when we "have" an emotion. This is all very slippery: "experience" = "feeling" = "psychological state", doesn't it? I don't know. I don't know what emotions are. No answers, only questions:

Do the terms "emotional state" and "psychological state" describe the same underlying thing?

In what sense do we "have" an emotion? Or is it that emotions have us? What does it mean to "have" an emotion? Does that imply we should "own" our emotions? Do we / should we take psychological responsibility for our emotions? Attending anger management classes implies an acceptance of responsibility for emotion. Can we "manage" our emotions? Does that mean we can choose to "have" them / experience them?

Are humans the only animals to have emotions?

Is pain an emotion? Is there such as thing as "emotional pain", and if so, what does it have in common with physical pain, if anything?

"Intuition" (another highly problematical word) tells me that emotion is tightly linked to consciousness. I think that emotions are modes or parts of modes of consciousness, or modifiers to modes of consciousness, or flavours of consciousness if you prefer. Emotions introduce color to what would otherwise be a black and white movie of life.

Or is linking emotions and consciousness just shifting the question further out: Is "consciousness" just another word for "feeling", which is another word for "psychological state", which is another term for "emotional state"? And even if we knew exactly how emotions work and how they are produced, that would still throw no light on what they are.

Obviously, being able to control one's emotions can provide a tactical benefit in some contexts. It doesn't always happen but it's conceivable that offering the other cheek after being slapped in the face could change how the slapper "feels about" the slappee, reducing or even minimising the chances of more slapping in the future.

Take the concept of "practice" (eg meditation) in the field of spiritual development. The practice is a means to an end, not the end in itself, unless you want to be a professional meditator.

Perhaps, emotions likewise are the tools whereby the emoter creates the flavour of their personal reality. Emotions are the means to an end (taking mindful responsibility for ones life) not the end in itself, unless you want to be a professional emoter. And so many of us do: we try to be professional emoters, but mainly end up being amateur hysterics! It's easy to become addicted to emotion, in general, or to specific emotions. For example, some people enjoy anger: an acquired taste the acquisition of which carries with it responsibility for the outcomes of the acquisition.

The painting -- 30.5 x 41 cm, oils on canvas, entitled Reconciliation -- was born out of deep emotion. While painting it I experienced a complex of complex emotions, some related to each other, some related to specific people in my life, others relating more broadly, less personally. It's unclear whether the painting produced the emotions or the emotions produced the painting or both. Self-bootstrappy, you might say: inherently unstable but somehow existent.

* Epiphenomena: "secondary" effects. Of course, calling something an epiphenomenon doesn't mean that it's somehow less than real, and that therefore no further analysis is required. It means that the epiphenomenon (the offspring) can be understood only in the context of another phenomenon,the progenitor. It's like the moon, which only reflects the light of the sun, it generates no light of its own. To me that seems like passing the intellectual buck.


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Emotions are past impressions that push one another to form a pattern. When we were infants, our feelings were pure, the emotions were very objective, but gradually with time, circumstances affect on our senses and create a pattern, and thus form an emotion. Even in new born there are tendencies, which we can’t explain by modern science because why a duckling runs toward water after birth, and why we fear death, is not understandable from a regular reasoning. Those all are past impressions, even death. If knowledge only comes from experience then how we can say knowledge of death comes to us if we haven’t experienced it earlier. Why we fear? Why we cry? Are those just neurobiological motions? If it is an established truth that motion creates motion and nothing more, then how can some queer vibration of brain cells can produce consciousness, which is not (just) motion but the knower of motion.

Some people say our brain is altered with external stimuli, for example with psychedelic substances and we hallucinate. I don’t think ‘alter’ word is justifiable. Our consciousness is heightened, go back to its past, to see things clearly or rather purely. Consciousness itself is obviously not a physical phenomenon but it associates with physical. The problem I think is we always relate physical things with non-physical things. Non-physical things exist, but we can’t see it (unless we develop some special eyes) and so we just associate it with physical thing and confuse. There are certain levels; every level is different from others. For example, from the highest level, nothing is in our hands, because the content of our mind is not our choice. From a different level, everything is in our hands. Those two levels are independent and do not affect each other. Anyway, this ‘finding ourselves’ is pretty much complicated but I guess very simple affair who understands it.

masterymistery said...

Shubhajit, Thanks for your detailed, thoughtful comment.

A lot to respond to:
As I said in the post, I don't feel that I have any firm knowledge on this subject -- only intuitions [!] without any evidence or logic to back me up.,

But my intuition suggests you're right about emotions being a pattern of past circumstantial effects. Except I would add to that by saying that if emotions are patterns, then they are processes -- dynamic patterns, that unfold over time.

This post, and your response, highlights what to me are some of the problems of non-dualism. As you put it, "how can some queer vibration of brain cells can produce consciousness"? We seem to be determined to keep looking for the bridge between worlds. Maybe there is no bridge. Maybe there are no worlds, just one.

Your point that apparently different, contradictory or even opposing things, can both/all be true at different levels in different contexts on the face of it seems obvious and simple. But actually there is a very deep and powerful idea there. The Quantum physicist Niels Bohr called it "the principle of complementarity", to explain, to take just one example, how light is made of particles and waves, simultaneously...

Thanks for stopping by. Cheers, MM

mgeorge said...

If the body is the main system, the subconscious is the main control system; some may include the endocrine system in the latter. Motivation and a sense of identity seem to be essential to keeping this system going in all animals. This is where consciousness comes in.

What keeps consciousness occupied are these:
- The physical senses - after much editing and adjusting. I may have commented here some time ago on a Professor's simple hypothesis of how the senses developed.
- Problems.
- Other information including concepts.

This would all be hard to evaluate or prioritise without emotions, and that may be the main purpose of the latter. They could be seen as the automation of some mental processing, or as ends in themselves.

Many emotional responses towards specific stimuli or ideas are acquired through socialisation. Others - even seemingly sophisticated ones - are hardwired by our evolution. Thus the basis of our emotions is our values and our genes.

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, yes I can see how, eg fear, can be the evaluation of the prey towards the predator, with priority then given to fight or flight. "Love" whatever that might be, I suppose could be the evaluation of "suitable" between one partner and another, with priority then given to all sorts of things, including making babies! "greed" is really "fear" that there will not be enough.

So much for purpose. As for derivation, what you say about socialisation, evolution, values and genes, makes sense.

But I still don't understand the nature of emotions. Perhaps I'm clutching at dualistic straws...

There's a half-baked idea here about emotions somehow being related to the "qualia" of consciousness... I don't know. It's too early in the morning.

Thanks for your comments.


mgeorge said...

The "qualia" bit is related to senses too. This is what a senior Cambridge researcher Nicholas Humphrey wrote in 1994 (my summary): Detailed analysis of the psychology and phenomenology shows that sensations are our own active response to stimuli, unlike symbol manipulation. My theory is as follows:
a. Sensations began as overt bodily behaviours. For a primitive organism, the activity of sensing red, for example, may have involved responding to red light on one part of its surface with a particular behaviour. The subjective proto-experience corresponded to the form of response: to sense red was to issue the commands for the response. The “sensory” activities occurred in the public domain, and were shaped by natural selection. For each stimuli, a behaviour got selected as the biologically adaptive response.
b. Some responses became less important. To identify the stimuli, however, the organism required the “resulting” sensory representations. For that, it had to monitor its own response by issuing the customary commands. Such commands [related to now irrelevant behaviours] got “short-circuited”, resulting in no behaviour. Sensory activity became an internal loop within the brain.
c. This had the dramatic consequence of becoming self-sustaining and partly self-creating [possessing feedback?]. Sensory experience moved into the subjective present.

What Bertrand Russell found (with AN Whitehead) for maths and Kurt Godel generalised to logic is: no system can define itelf. In the case of understanding ourselves, we need to ask not just whether we can but whether we want to.

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, it's a good theory: seems to explain a lot. Or at least, points to the strong possibility of a good theory, ie that these things are explicable in principle.

In fact, perhaps all of these debates -- about the nature of emotion, thought, memory, life, consciousness, etc -- are fruitless because those things are what they are: no more and no less. There are no further translations or interpretations or analyses existent, possible or conceivable. We must take Reality as we find it.

I think there is something held in common between What We Experience and What We Describe, but self-reflexivity almost always leads to paradox. So using language to talk about language is unreliable. So too is using thought to think about thought. And using consciousness to understand, define or "prove" consciousness.

There's a post in here about applying Godelian indeterminacy to language as a formal system.

Thanks for your comments, which as always provoke much thought.