Sunday, January 9, 2022

Notes While Reading *How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain*

Pre-post note. I've been aware of this book for a while, but I guess it never seemed as though it would be relevant to my own "work." Now I find that it might come closer to my own "world-view" than anything I've read. I think that what I mean by "world-view" is essentially what is meant in this book by the mind's simulation and prediction based on a mass of primally disordered perception. Our genetic makeup combined with language - and especially written language-, and combined with our culture, enable us to learn to makes sense of our senses, and to construct 'emotion concepts' which help us to navigate successfully through life. I have made a shape, as it were, from reading across disciplines and languages and cultures which is gratifyingly similar to the reality described here. This has been a big and very pleasant surprise.

* * *

I open this book full, almost, of antagonism. This is my field, and I expect yet another dismissal of emotion as a kind of second-order qualia. But no, instead I think she's onto something! Yippee!

I finally have the definition I've been looking for interminably in the infinite and exponentially enlarging sea of words. The destruction of coastal habitations by rising sea level is as nothing compared to the destruction of the liminal interactions among humans as the result of textual proliferation. Hardly any sense can be made among the noise. What is called, in this book, simulation - the cognitive ability to fill in blanks by a kind of mental hypothesis when given scant information - is being overwhelmed, and we quite literally don't know how to make sense of the world anymore. That's even as more and more sense is being made. Apparently, if not in fact.

So here it is. By my definition, emotion is the direct feeling had when present perception (as opposed to the delayed perception of memory) matches a conceptual form, as handed up emergently (another definition here, for "emergence") from the unconscious mind, which is constantly narrativizing, which is to say narrating a surge of incoming perception that would overwhelm the conscious mind.

This, incidentally, also provides a very handy and useful definition for consciousness, and an implied proof of the impossibility for "artificial intelligence" that is in any way conscious. That is quite simply because what is directly felt - meaning emotively felt - includes the body. Not only the body of the self, bounded by the massive perceptual organ of the skin, but also the entire world. Of course our body is extended out into the world, just as our mind is

AI researchers are not just misunderstanding what the mind is and what intelligence is. They are also misunderstanding, along with nearly all scientists, how the cosmos is composed. There is no cosmos short of mind and emotion both, and both precede mankind by the same interval that the Big Bang precedes us.

Felt cognitive matching is not only instantaneous, but when the feeling arises from some concept external to the self involving more than a single mind, it is the very definition of simultaneity. Or in other words we are in some sense simultaneous with the stars which we know to be eons ago in time. Coincidence is contact. Each momentary present feeling is a snowflake, melting upon touch, while the category is easily recognized.

And that is, of course, why attempts to penetrate disciplinary boundaries elicit significant disembodied emotions. Excitement and anger will feel the same, differentiated only by the status differential between interlocutors. Just like real life. 

So, I have been commenting for a while now that 'reptiles are already conscious.' Now I have to add that just as emotions are not the built-in basic reactions to certain stimuli, but are instead constructed according to cultural cues, I will have to say as well that perceptions are not primary, in the sense that the brain is somehow reacting to them. Instead, there must be an interplay between conception and perception, such that nothing is ever perceived unless and until it matches up with a mental conception. 

Imagine a mind - a person - with nothing to look forward to. Nothing ever happens. Wouldn't time also disappear? What if time were actually defined as that feeling of matching the mind's prediction with reality as one is moving through it? What if time is also as emotive as it is motive; directly felt as much as it is perceived. 

We define scientific objectivity still in a way to privilege the emotionless observer. Emotion has been thought of as a kind of distorter, which makes my subjective observation potentially different from yours. And so we must control the environment and restrict the variables such than any observer anywhere will always observe the same thing (to within some degree of statistical precision). The best way to do that is to remove the subject altogether except as the reader of some instrument; preferably one which displays the abstraction of numbers. 

But such objective science can never encompass the real. Yes I am critical of the Western bias of progressivity to history. Which must mean that I also find science as we still practice it to be parochially Western as well. 

Surely there is something going on which masquerades as progress very well. But from one remove, what we call the progression of ever greater and better understanding of the world around us could also be seen as a 'progressive' movement toward the stasis of death, where nothing at all can happen that's surprising or dangerous or uncomfortable unless we want it to. And so long as we agree with one another about what is true.

While we in the West value whatever we mean by "freedom" as among the highest human values, one measure for the success of our scientific enterprise has been the degree to which we are all bound together. Nothing about the way we live can be considered an individual accomplishment. There is no built environment which is not somehow social. Our languages limit us as much as they liberate us. And psychedelics start to look like the best or even the only way to knock people from their existential suffering.

What if our insistence on objectivity as the basis for knowing has become more like a set of blinders than it is like the way toward an expansion of knowledge? What if we are closing off things that we might otherwise know by our insistence that objective reality is all that there is?

And I'm not referring to the dodge of virtual reality, no matter how exciting and enticing we might be able to make that. I might actually be talking about other, perhaps living and therefore 'natural' realities which we are only now (yet again?) able to experience? Many of us are excited by the prospect of making contact with extraterrestrial life. What if it's always been here, and we've just squinched it out of our reality. 

Historical progress then, in this very limited way, looks like a culturally relative side-track followed by a bunch of Christ-descended apocalyptic Westerners looking for God in all the wrong places. Having been fooled by a reflection of ourselves. 

I've been aware for a long time of the wartime origins of the plastics industry; how plastic bags were necessary to bring plastic car parts into a reasonable price range. That was after the War demanded plastics. I've been long aware of how the need was manufactured along with the industry to feed it.

I used to go to extreme lengths to avoid any and all sorts of plastics. I still do, but I've had to cave. It's hard to imagine computers without plastics. But it's also hard to deny that we view plastics as a sign of progress and improvement and better. We regard the toxic and global warming problems as pesky side effects of progress, rather than to view the whole schmear as the projected illusion of progress.

The very existence of plastics is derived from a set of accidents, perhaps very much like the accidents of evolution. But only one became a matter of choice, in just the way that we choose to own or not the decisions our subconscious mind makes for us before we know it. 

Indeed our feeling about plastics makes a very good example of how we construct - project onto - reality as much as we observe it as it is.

At the very least this book forces us to re-open the question about what progress really is. I might suggest a distinction between evolutionary "progress" and scientific progress. I may have my read wrong, but I think Stephen Jay Gould was a leftish exponent of the position that evolution is directionless. That humans' survival is no different from the cockroach's and that it's all about happenstance.

Gould provided valuable correctives to stupid metric-based measures of merit, but may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater with his at least implicit claim that there is nothing very special about humans. And I never did quite understand what's wrong with E.O. Wilson, whose Consilience is among my most valued reads.

Scientific "progress" must contend, in any case with this issue of projection. Meaning the replacement of truth with projections upon facts of the sort detailed here in a constructivist understanding of emotion. If it can be called a given that science will never achieve anything like complete understanding, then almost by definition we know less, scientifically, than we might know. That's what progress has to mean. Specifically, what we resist knowing is that there may be aspects of reality - the bulk of reality, as it were - which simply can't be brought into the realm of law-abiding normal science. 

To me, this opens the very same expansive endless vista that evolution opens up. As you know, gentle reader, I have taken to a definition for time which escapes physics altogether, and places it in the cosmic narrativizing mind. Direction is what we feel when we're alive. And humans are just simply that much more advanced in our narrations than any other evolved creature that we have come into contact with. 

But, just like Hollywood, we have become too much in thrall to a happy or uplifting ending. Real life so very much more dramatic. Our narrations are not about finding ultimate truth, but about making accurate predictions to enhance our survival rate, based on what are called interoception in this book; or readings of your body's predictive budgeting process, which establishes homeostasis and keeps us alive. The brain creates conceptions, especially including "emotion concepts," and categorizes them to guide decisions based on predictions about the future.

Affording meaning to coincidence is not the same as what I would feel as the disappointment that God is predictable in His charges. That God can be reduced to what can be written in human languages. Plus, I find no better way to cool the overheating and liminal swamping proliferation of words than to revert to writing Chinese characters with the ink brush. Words pounded on a keyboard just simply can't connect reliably with the embodied brain; keyboarded Chinese is as detached from its past and indelible sense as is spelled phonics-descended English.

And speaking of Stephen Jay Gould, while ontogeny may not recapitulate phylogeny in life, it may in intellectual life. Thus I may at least feel that I know not just more than I knew as a child, but perhaps more than the adults knew when I was a child. Knowledge certainly feels as though it's progressive. 

But not always. Sometimes we travel down dead-ends in our knowledge accumulation, and even build castles in the sky that can be taken down in an instant by a better, more generalized understanding. I'm certain that I'm a lousy physicist, though knowledge that I have from other disciplines may apply to physics in ways that physicists can never know. 

It feels to me that the realizations embodied by this book hold out incredible hope for areas as far afield as legal reform, mental healthcare reform, educational reform, political reform and many many more. So many of our best efforts are undermined by a kind of atavistic essentialism, which holds that people are born with scorable intelligence which equates to merit, or that emotions are a distortion of  rationality, set and inherited from the 'beasts,' which must be controlled or suppressed altogether.

It is hopeful to me that we might learn to listen to Trumpers when they express certainties which seem absurd such that we listen for their reality, for the culture which built it and find commonality in the outrage of not being paid attention to by folks who live in a different reality. Our very outrage expresses the same team spirit which informs the certainty that the election was stolen. So strong is the sense that they should have won. 

But that's all to the side for me. I can't refrain from going a step further than this book is willing to go (though by the final chapter, it has pretty much gone there). Reality is both constructed and real; built on concepts as well as on percepts. 

For me quantum physics with its rendering causation as meaningless beyond a certain scale, was already proof that the human mind is not the only mind. I will continue to work to clarify what I mean, but this book sure does help. And I'm not talking about God or about spirituality. I want to stay in the realm of the real, which is also the realm where the mind is not contained in any brain, and where life is not some essential magic apart from the world as described by physics. If we want a big bang, then life got its start there too. In part I make that claim as a constructionist. So I mean "as far as we can know." The world as we know it is limited by the way we construct it. 

This book is not only about how "emotions are made." As I think the author is herself aware, this is an entirely new way to approach brain science, and might as well be about how "reality is made." We simply can't know what our world would be like without us.

Reading the section on the law elicits lots of altered thoughts. But first of all, it's necessary to reiterate that one also has to get beyond any lingering remnants of the notion that there is even a distinction between perceptual and emotional reality. Each is embedded in the other, which both seems clear to me from the thesis and the evidence for it in this book. The mind is embodied, and emotions are as constructed as reality is. Which is redundant, since for me emotion is a part of reality, as are the emotion concepts "behind" it. 

It can almost seem clear that our culture wars really are wars about reality. Some folks - about half of us - are really uncomfortable with the responsibility we must own for taking actual responsibility for our world. In my terms, those people just simply don't wish to grow up. To grow up would also mean to recognize, for instance, that our massive outlying prison population is the result of the very same thing that idolizes superstars. As a people, we seem to have lost all sense of social responsibility to give all people the chance at rehabilitation for any crime that can't be equated with some sort of incorrigibility. 

It should be obvious to all of us that there are many more incorrigibly corrupt people out of jail than in, but also that there are certain kinds of corruption that our society sanctions. In some strange sense, this observation gives me actual hope for our future, since at least now there's something to dig in to.

So how can our perceptual reality be constructed? It's certainly not constructed wholesale - we can't build castles in the sky and live in them. But our mind's function to predict the future on the basis of the past, combined with our necessity to live - to actually live out our lives - before we can possibly know what we're doing, should make it clear that our free will decisions follow rather than lead our mind's making itself up.

We don't have the conscious brainpower to make all the decisions that are required to go on living. Consciousness in that sense gets in the way. And we don't have the raw brainpower to always predict accurately what is about to happen, or what the right choice is, even if we have perfect emotional and cognitive health. And that right there is the driver of evolution, which we somehow thought that we have already, or that we should remove ourselves from. As if we are so smart that we can pull out from the flow of evolution and be better for it.

There is hope, in other words, in our overwhelming of the earth, because that actually does represent a new sort of consciousness and responsibility. Exercising our responsibility means to pull back from certainty and evaluate with sobriety and probity (which is not to say without emotion) the differences between "progress" (which may be a figment) and evolution (which is always real). 

Or in other words, we already know what to do. We just have yet to operationalize what we know because we haven't yet figured out how to put what we know into social action.

Well, tomorrow I will reawaken to despair. I end with only one tiny quibble with the book. She refers to a video of triangles and squares and a box with what seems to be an opening and closing door, as being enlightening about how we project emotions and narratives onto the most basic objects. But she makes no mention that there is a human producer behind the video. Maybe we weren't meant to find some certain story to the video, but we do certainly know that it wasn't either machine generated (it was too old) or random. We are detecting something "behind" the video. We are detecting a human intelligence, and we are correct in doing so.

Which is to say that I felt as though we were being encouraged to disclose to ourselves that we were projecting something where nothing was. As though we were finding the essence of intelligence where there was actually nothing at all. In other words, wasn't she contradicting herself with this example?

We know that actors are not real, but that they project elements of a narrative (for the most part) that we can invest ourselves in, by virtue of its sufficient familiarity. We also know when the actors are themselves simulations or even life-capture. So we're always looking "behind." Is that really our habit of finding essences where there is only construction. I think Paul Bloom is the psychology prof. who discusses this? 

I'm just saying that I think that we can tell when there is something like human intelligence present before us, just as we can tell if there's genuine emotion. To be really sure, we have to part of the drama, face-to-face. I think that's the difference between projected and real. We know we're playing when we invest something unreal with reality. We know that we're in a state of suspended disbelief, though it may be useful to us. 

And why not? Sometimes we need to collectively create something bigger than us. And so what if the essences we find are always deficient? What if the cosmos is indeed infinite and infinitely extensible? The soul I find in my fellow humans is not a reified essence, but an actual person, as real as I am. When I project something behind that person, I deny their reality. Perhaps I accuse them of acting. I also know that I am myself but an act. Society imposes that on me. Though you and I both scintillate between the act and the real by enacting reality moment to moment in our very striving to be real.

And the real is the possibility for continued growth and change. And so essences are the only falsehood. Abstracted permanence the only fiction. Except that by virtue of the endless regression of our collectively rendered magical fantasy essences, we may still be getting in touch with that portion of real which will always be beyond us, but no less real for that. Some things can never be named. Some things can only be approached. And our minds don't really do backward.

No comments: