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Basic science of emotions

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Joined: 22 Jun 2004
Posts: 116
Location: Norway

Post Thu Sep 09, 2004 6:56 am

Basic science of emotions    Reply with quote  

"Scientific" here refers to that detached view of things that often ignores the personal experience and compromises understanding emphaty by using obscure technical terms and phrases. This is all for the sake of clarity and precision and does not always signify a general cold attitude of the author.

For some people a "science of emotions" is a bit of an oxymoron (like "black ligth" or "Microsoft Works") and you could ask why you would ever want to have a science of emotions. Emotions are supposed to be subjective intuitive guides to the most vital matters in life, so why would you want to spoil that with estranging language and detached points of view?
Well - what you want is not always what you have and even if a life guided in the right directions by inner feelings and intuitions is an ideal a lot of people will find that they are either very confused about thier intuitions or that their intuitions regularly lead them into painfull experiences.
There sometimes is a need to supplement your intuitive guidance with some evidence based plans and a more objective understanding of yourself and others.
The following is my sincere attempt to scrape together what i have found importent in this respect. The sources are very varied but my basic understanding of the matters stem from the esoteric psychology of Alice Bailey and the semiotic (theory of signs) of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Joined: 22 Jun 2004
Posts: 116
Location: Norway

Post Thu Sep 09, 2004 7:56 am

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An emotion is your mind taking a situation as an icon of an experience.

This definition is the core scientific understanding of an emotion and I will try to go into enough details about the terms used to give you a basic understanding of the dynamic involved. I should warn that this involves a crash-course in semiotics - something which isnt really advisable.

You should note that the basic relation is triangular: An emotion is the relation between a situation, an experience and an (iconic) interpretation. In another slightly misleading phrasing an emotion is the hypothesis that the situation present to the mind is another example of a certain kind of situations. "This situation is like when....". Certain words and phrasings will make you interpret: "Oh - I guess I have failed again". Or "He is trying to flatter me". The situation is seen in a certain light or interpreted in a certain matrix. Which matrix is very significant and there is a great variety of possible matrices pending on your experience and you disposition. The specific chosen matrix will influence the quility of emotion, the action-urges and conscious understanding of the situation according to the guiding past experience. The emotion is from a semiotic point of view a hypothesis that this situation can be bedst treated as an instance of X, where X is either a composite of several like experiences or a ideal version of a specific experience. Only the term hypothesis is somewhat misleading in that this is commonly understood as something explicit and verbalised, whereas the infrence in an emotion will be "sensed" and only rarely verbalised.

You should note that what you normaly would call a hypothesis always have this exact form: Some situation is taken to be like an experience in some evident aspects and perhaps/hopefully in some not so evident aspects as well. What the hypothesis adds to a situation is a somewhat credible but not at all certain suggestion about some otherwise unseen aspects of the situation.

The tentative diagnosis of diabetes takes a variety of symptoms as a case of diabetes and predicts that a blod-sample will show a lack of insulin, showing that there is a general failure in insulin production.

The emotional "diagnosis" of a unpleasant situation takes a variety of signs as a case of "personal failure", predicts that all important tasks will be compromised by "personal failure" and prompt for some reaction deemed fitting (suicide or isolation). I many cases the unpleasant situation will no longer be taken as suggestive of personal failure but as proff. This is by all means bad science.

The central dynamic to all this is the establishment of an iconic reference, a likeness, between the present situation and some experience. This dynamic is variable by both the "library" of experiences drawn on and the logic or habits of thougths that guide the establisment of a "likeness" or iconic reference between events. I will cover both aspects, but first I should try to give a general introduction to the iconic sign as a backdrop for the later analysis.

Last edited by tagfat on Thu Sep 09, 2004 11:46 am; edited 3 times in total

Joined: 22 Jun 2004
Posts: 116
Location: Norway

Post Thu Sep 09, 2004 8:35 am

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The Icon

The christian icons are graphic depictions of the Christ just as computer icons are pictures of some objects. In semiotics the term icon has a more general meaning: an icon is a sign which signifies by being like something in any way possible. A buste is an icon, but so is a painting, a drawing, a map, a diagram or a chart. All signs that signifies by use of its own form is an icon.

Most icons are "silent" in the sense that they do not make any explicit reference to any object and you do not normaly se them as refering to anything. The typeface of what you are reading, the color of the room you are in, the music that you are listening to and someones dialect are such self-contained icons that only very implicitly refers to a certain quality of mind. Your tone of voice is also an such an icon but here it is more obvious that there is some kind of reference to a quality of mind.

Icons and Symbols
One defining aspect of the icon is actually that it does not need any other signs for its interpretation. In comon language there is a bit of confusion of symbols and icons, so i should point out that the symbols is defined as a sign that relies on some rule or habit for its interpretation. Language is the prime example of symbols: Words and phrases can be limitless suggestive - if you happen to know that particular language. "Rødgrød med fløde" will only mean something to someone introduced to danish language. Icons an the other hand will never require any predispositions for its interpretation. Music is universal because it relies on icons only.

The egyptian written language was to a large degree iconic, using icons of ideas and object as letters.
There are several modern iconic languages which combines the use of symbols and icons. With a vocabulary of symbols signifying resistors, condensators and semiconductors you can build icons of amplifyers and other electronic gadgets. The symbol for a transistor has an iconic representation of the base, the emittor and the collector while the symbol for a resistor (a zigzag line) is less clearly iconic in charater. With a more obscure iconic reference you have to rely more on habit of mind for interpretation and the sign becomes more of a symbol. Im shure that for the trained mind of a electronics engineer it would not matter at all if the establised symbol for transistors was totaly arbitrary - say a crossed square - the iconic reference is largely a leftover from the childhood of electronics. You can find similar traces of iconic references in words like "bomb" or "hack".
There is a natural progression whereby words aquire meaning it didnt have before. Electricity means a lot more now than it did 100 years ago. While the essential meaning has not changed, the practical implications understood by the word is so different in this time than hundred years ago. The same goes for the word "bomb".
Icons on the other hand are eternal in their significance - the Monalisa and Bachs Magnificat are unchanged after hundreds of years. I know that different directors will perform a symphony in a sligthly different way in his personal "interpretation", but that is besides the point. A changing context will not mean a changed interpretation of a given icon, only a different icon will make the difference.

Last edited by tagfat on Thu Sep 09, 2004 12:06 pm; edited 2 times in total

Joined: 22 Jun 2004
Posts: 116
Location: Norway

Post Thu Sep 09, 2004 10:55 am

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The mystery of smell

It might be usefull to take a quick look at the use that mother nature saw for emotional reactions and an emotional based motivation in the more advanced species. The more obvious advantage is the possibility of "long distance reactions": If you can se a treathening situation as just that - threatening - you can react accordingly, even if you are at safe distance in time or space. But I will suggest that the really significant advantage is the general ability to proces stimuli in the kind of virtual reality commonly refered to as abstract thinking. Abstract here refers to something outside any sense-modality, so that any visual representation would be abstract in relation to sound perception, i.e. you hear a well known voice and "see a face" in your mind, even if you are just on the phone.

What has all this to do with smell? Well, even if it is not totaly evident I tend to think that there must be a very strong connection between the function of smell and the emotional reactions that we have. Or rather that the latter is a updated version of the first.

Lets go back in time to trias, the era when dinosaurs largely ruled the world and where the first mamals evolved. Jeholodens were one of the early mamals, a long-tailed, quadrupedal mammal, about 5 inches long. An insectivore, it had relatively advanced, grasping hands, but a primitive pelvis and hind limbs. It may have had large eyes, and may have been nocturnal (most active at night) which is significant.

A jeholodens.

Being a mamal meant internal regulation of temperature instead of the reptiles and dinosaurs primitive reliance on the ambient temperature. It meant that they could be active at night when it was cold and when the hungry thecodonts would be "sleeping", or rather inactive from hypothermia.

This meant that the world was largely theirs in the dark hours, but it introduced the slight problem of navigating in complete darkness. In order to overcome this limitation early mamals develloped an acute sense of smell. The natural selection for variations more suited to take advantage of the cold dark night would enshure that a the early mamals got the needed equipment. This makes it very likely that the early devellopment of the mamalian brain had nothing to do with more intelligence as such, but was a function of the evolving olfactory bulp.

There is however one slight glitch in this theory: The sense of smell isnt really very usefull. With visual information you can do a lot of analysis: the angular difference from each eye will give you a clue to distance and the visual brain will actually give you a 3-dimentional derivate from two different 2-dimentional representations in each eye. Similarly with hearing: The outer ears are designed to distort the sound according to the direction its coming from and with added phase analysis between the sounds in the two ears you will get a sense of room with at least two dimensions represented clearly.

The trouble with smell is that you cant really do anything with it. Light moves in straight lines and the eye will produce a perfect array representing the distribution in space of the souces of the light. The molecules that are detected as smell just hangs or drifts in the air. The one thing you can do with smell is recognition. You can recognise a specific smell as that particular smell. End of story.

This begs the question: If the start of mamalian brain-devellopment was due to increased olfactory capabillites, then what are those extra capabillities used for? Nature dont waste energy, if there was a larger olfactory bulp develloped, the there must have been a vital use for it.

It has been suggested that the olfactory bulp became the site for imaginations: It is deep dark night and some early mamal get wind of a suiting prey. What it needs to do is a bit of hunting. Had there been light it would have had an easy translation between the visual information and the adequate hunting behaviour. The visuals would be processed in 3D and make a nice source for spatial navigation of the legs and teeth. If you now replace the visual stimulation with smell you loose the link between stimuli and behavior, a smell is not suggestive of direction. It would seem that what the brain actually did in lack of visual was to enhance the stimuli of smells with vivid imaginations of the scenario. If the hearing was good it could support the virtual visual and give a bit of direction. But most importantly the stimuli would be placed in a "space" where coordination of bodymovements would take place. The smelled objects in this imagined space would have to have a pretty strong motivating effect as well and this fits very well with the very strong instinctive reaktions that we can have to certain smells. If you have learned to loathe a specific smell by getting sick after eating say asparges, this loathe will be almost impossible to overcome, even if you know that youn didnt get sick from the asparges but from a virus you contracted.

So to summerize: Recognition of a specific smell as coming from a prey animal would lead to strong arrousal and keen motivation, it would conjure up a vivid "visualisation" of the prey in 3 dimensions, guided also by sounds, whatever visual perception was possible, and the proprioceptive feedback from the moving legs. Any specific significant smell would be recognised based on experience and trigger a huge motivated response.

This would all be a curiocity in natural history if it wasnt for one significant aspect: Given that this worked so well for smell, why not try the same trick based on other senses? Why not take any significant sign - be it visual or audital - and make it trigger an appropriate (based on your personal experience) response?
Any such general ability would come pretty close to what we understand as our emotional reactions and I think that this gives a great set of clues to what normal emotional function is like and how to deal with it.

Now there is a lot of speculation in this theory - a lot of things could turn out not to be the case in reality - but that is not so important. The central point is to get a sense of the dynamic involved in interpretation of significant signs in the inviroment and the ways that imagined space plays a role in the proces of alligning present stimuli with past experience. The way that experience based imaginations will serve as a guiding matrix for any significant sense input.

Joined: 22 Jun 2004
Posts: 116
Location: Norway

Post Fri Sep 10, 2004 3:06 pm

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The comon icon

Pure icons are estremely rare if they exist at all. The point is not that what is normaly considered icons also have sybolic or indexical properties, but rather that what is normaly considered object, event and experiences have an iconic aspect which is extremely usefull for the human mind. The basic definition of an iconic relation is that the icon resembles its object. What should be noted is that all objects actually resembles themselves, which is only to say that no matter what other ways an object signifies it will always have a certain set of iconic properties. Just as any object , say a can of soup can be used for its normal purpose, it can also be drawn or paited. The icon thus produced will share a set of iconic proporties with the can. Those proporties are no less iconic when residing in the can than when residing in the painting. What is different is that in a painting we will be likely to view the iconic properties as the most interesting, while most people would perhaps be more interested eating the soup.

Andy Warhol: "Campbell's Soup"

Peirce stresses the importance of the icon in our normal comunications:
"The only direct way of directly communicating an idea is by means of an icon; and every indirect method of communicating an idea must depend for its establisment upon athe use of an icon. Hence, every assertion must contain an icon or a set of icons, or else must contain sign whose meaning is only explicable by icons " [2.272]

So where do we find those icons? There are three different types of icons:

Images are representing mere qualities (i.e. the colors of the can of Soup),

Diagrams are representing dyadic relations of the parts of one thing by analogous relation in their own part (i.e. a diagram of an electronic circuit).

Metaphors are representing the meaning of a sign by representing a parallelism in something else. Metaphors are the realy interesting icons in that they use symbols as their basis, but essentially conveys an icon. A set of known meanings are used to convey the icon or "paint the picture".

To understand something is to have a icon present the predicate of the assertion.

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