Wednesday, July 10, 2019

how does it feel to feel?

People - especially ad people - get terribly confused about what is meant by ‘emotion’.

For a start its not just one thing.

There are distinctions between the functional emotion (‘the emotional state’), the experience of the emotion, our ability to perceive and attribute emotions to other people (and to animals).

Also our ability to think and talk about emotion and, of particular interest to advertisers, the behaviours caused by an emotion state. The expressions and emotional responses.

But emotions are first and foremost about the states and everything else flows from that.

In essence, to understand what emotions are, and what they are for, requires a fundamental or ultimate explanation.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs.

Whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

It’s not neat. 

In fact, it’s a bit messy, not least because these programs, or modules, evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, they are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I'm in two minds about that.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted from over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

It's worth pointing out straight away that the EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is obviously very different from our modern world.

Our brains and minds evolved to operate in hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies.

And so it's an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing a 'mismatch'.

Evolutionary mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we're not. These are evolutionarily novelsources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears have more ancient sources. Among them, spiders, snakes and the dark.

And social exclusion (so I have so many followers on Twitter...but why don't they share my post?)

Each of these mental modules, our software or apps, is a specialised structure sculpted to carry out a particular function. But integrated into a complex whole, and activated by a different set of cues.

These functions include 'basic' things like breathing, heart-rate regulation, sleep management, and perception.

Alongside all-important social mechanisms designed for face recognition, mate choice and ‘reading’ other peoples minds. A more ‘recent’ adaptation would be language, of course.

Steven Pinker describes resulting social behaviour as the outcome of an internal struggle among many mental modules, and it is played out on the chessboard of opportunities and constraints defined by other people's behaviour.

Of course, this internal struggle between cognitive programs creates another adaptive problem.

Programs that are designed to solve very specific adaptive problems could, if activated at the same time, conflict with one another, interfering with each other.

For instance, a sleep mechanism has to be over-ridden if cues for self-protection are present. If the house is on fire you better get out.

To avoid misfires, the mind must then be equipped with other superordinate programs that can override some programs when others are activated.

At the same time, certain adaptive problems are best solved by activation of multiple mechanisms at the same time, running from the fire in the dark needs to pump up heart rate regulation and spacial awareness mechanisms.

A superordinate system is needed to co-ordinate the activity of neural systems, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time. Emotions are functional states that regulate behaviours.

This is what Emotions are for.

Orchestrating the mind’s many and varied subprograms so that at any given time the organism is functionally coordinated.

Emotions are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration.

Emotions arose and assumed their structures in response to conditions, contingencies, situations, or types of events that recurred during evolutionary history.

Mating and fighting are two big ones, for a kick-off.

Avoiding and escaping from predators, parenting, exchange of trade and favours, establishing rank and status, dealing with the death of family members.

Anger, revenge and love. Deciding what to eat (and not) and predicting other people’s behaviour. These are just a few.

Repeated encounters with these situations selected for adaptations that guided information-processing and behaviour.

Emotions are the superordinate programs that mobilise a subset of the mental mechanisms in any given configuration in response to recurrent situations.

When a condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognisable kind is detected, a signal goes out from the emotion radar that activates the specific combination of subprograms appropriate to solving that type of adaptive problem(s) - and also deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving the most pressing problem.

In ‘simple’ terms, an emotion is a SUPERORDINATE program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of the other mental subprograms.

Perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions; reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, and so on.

Because emotions are clearly a product of adaptive design they cannot be irrational. In fact, emotions are super-rational adaptations, finely tuned to countering threats and recognising opportunities.

An emotion cannot be reduced down to any one category of effects because it contains evolved instructions for ALL OF THEM.

Consider this before reducing the assessment of advertising to ‘emotional’ or ‘rational’ appeals or entertaining 'new data' that claims to compare the emotional connection rankings of top brands.

There's either a response or no response. Your superordinate system of emotions decides.


Further reading: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture - (Barkow, Tooby, Cosmides)