I have solved every problem ever

I continue my reading of the Damasio book; currently I’m on a chapter discussing the need for the evolution of emotions. It’s an explanation I’ve read in the past (in Damsio’s other books, in Jonah Leher’s “How We Decide”) but it’s still interesting to ruminate on.

Before I get into it, let’s be clear what the term “emotion” is describing. By Damasio’s argument, an emotion is a series of measurable body changes – fear is an increased heart rate and sweating, sadness is the dull ache of muscles and viscera, joy is perhaps a light warmth, a sense that the body is moving smoothly. These are not the complete list of body changes for each emotion and it can also be argued that many of the changes we experience in an emotional state are barely on the tip of our consciousness (e.g. Freud’s classic subconscious emotions.)

Damasio’s argument is that emotions evolved as a kind of short cut to reason. We employ emotions to make quick decisions that would take longer if we employed only logic. Let’s say a friend says to you, Hey [your name here], I’ll give you ten bucks if you dangle you penis into this swimming pool filled with flesh eating sharks.” Do you contemplate this offer by musing, “Well, if I do that there’s a likelihood that the sharks will sense my penis and bite it off in a mad feeding frenzy. Since this would deprive me of the many pleasures of owning a penis as well as the possibility of creating children I should decline this offer.”? No, you do not. Instead you instantly recoil at the thought of your proud phallus becoming shark chum. Emotions do all the logic processing for you and deliver a sharp sensations (physically felt) indicating that the idea is bad.

I described a similar example of this kind of emotional processing, complete with physical sensations, in my groundbreaking article, “What is Emotion?

I recently hiked up a mountain near my house. As I stood atop a boulder overlooking the view, I observed some power lines that ran down the mountain and crossed just below me. As a kind of mental joke, I considered the possibility of leaping off the boulder and wrapping my sweater over the powerline so that I could literally slide down it as a kind of human ski lift. I had no serious intention of doing this, but even so, I could feel my body revolt. My viscera churned slightly and my chest got tight. What surprised me was the sensation in my knees. They tingled and weakened, almost as if my body was saying, “if you are considering this insane action, then I’m going to take away your ability to jump!”

So the idea here, again, is that emotion is a shortcut for logic. Problems that a computer, or Mr. Spock, might solve by “pure reason” (a questionable concept) are instead solved by emotion. In many ways one can see advantages to this – emotions are faster than logical processing and speed can be important in many situations. But there’s a downside – emotions can get “confused” and find joy or fear where there is really none to be had. The classic horror film, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” explores this. As a boy, the lead character sees his parents murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. As a result, he grows up associating every Santa with fear (and eventually, ironically, himself becomes a killer wearing a Santa uniform.) This is unfortunate since most Santas are harmless. But the movie’s lead is not processing the sight of Santas logically; he is processing them emotionally.

Thus you get to the cruxt of all problems in society. Take an issue – gay marriage, national defense, taxation, animal rights, etc. People argue and debate these issues, but they “feel” their viewpoints more than they “think” them. They process these issues emotionally more than logically. Frankly, I’m not sure there is a “logical” resolution to many of these issues. But you can no more convince someone to “feel” they way you do about something than you can convince them to like a food they do not like. They have their emotional sensations, you have yours, and never the twain shall meet.

1 Response to “I have solved every problem ever”

  1. John Saleeby

    Oh, look at Wil, talking about “emotions”! Are you going to start talking about your “feelings”? Go write a song about it, Gilbert O’ Sullivan! I hate you! Oh, I guess kicking my lap top like that didn’t do much to hurt you.