Scientific Necessity – The Need For A Quantitative Theory Of Emotions

Posted on January 18, 2012 in Sci-Tech

By Abhilash Dwarakanath:

Without blushing, I admit that I am one of those students of science who thinks anything and everything can and will be modelled and put into beautiful little theories. However, there’s one small grey area, which I’m not really sure about. Emotions. The stuff I feel when I walk into the muggy lush green cover of the rainforests near home, when I trundle on wearily, only to behold the snowy peaks so tantalizingly close in the Himalayas, or the rush I get when I spot quickly a juicy half-volley there for the asking. Can you really measure this stuff? Why is this stuff important?

As a student of biology, the most obvious question that springs to mind is one of evolution. In biology, there are always two basic questions: the How and the Why. The How is the immediate mechanistic question, and the why is the ultimate evolutionary question. I see both questions not having clear, well-defined answers. Let alone answers, I am doubtful as to whether these questions are indeed well posed problems even. For now, let us assume that we know enough about the biochemistry of emotions to reach a meaningful consensus without ripping each other’s hair out. How then can we speculate about the Why question?

It is certainly very clear that emotions are alarms that go off in our system whenever some significant event occurs. I would like to define this significant event as being one that is perceived by one individual and which elicits a strong reaction from him and only him. It may or may not elicit a similar reaction from some other subject. In this context, we can very well understand the case for the need of the emotions we know about. Fear, to escape from danger leading to self-preservation, love, to find a mate and pro-create, jealousy, to not let anyone else claim your mate, aggression, to protect your mate and offspring, so on and so forth. At a very basic mechanistic level, this makes sense. Nevertheless, are these explanations valid in the human milieu?

Many learned men are of the opinion that humans have now escaped the clutches of evolution. I beg to differ: we are very much in, and the trait that helps us survive is our complex brain. Using technology, we’ve managed to beat even the harshest of conditions. While other animals may perish in a sudden flash flood for they don’t have gills, we have the power of reason that tells us to seek higher ground, or build a dyke, after due calculations, predictions and readiness in anticipation. Art, culture, science; these have become the foremost of human weapons. Why then would one need the primitive notion of emotions, if that were indeed the way they operated? For instance, if a comfortable life where you can make babies and provide them a safe upbringing is what you’re after, then ladies, aren’t you better off marrying a safe, stolid, decent man than a playboy who flirts with danger and lives on the edge? Or an intelligent man, rather than a slow Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of a guy? Humans don’t physically fight for women now, or physically hurt people b who bully their kids (well, they do, but let’s stick to the ‘civilised’ world here). Yet, these primitive emotions are very much present, and moreover, in a highly developed manner, if you will.

Dualists will now draw their swords; menacingly polish them, ready to stick it into us materialists. Look, they will say, there’s always something more. If we look around us, human emotions, so complex in their manifestations, have only served to make life more complicated. Moreover, this depressing need to rationalize what we feel, leads us into more complications. Human emotions are so inherently tied in with culture, upbringing, linguistics and our very consciousness that it is so hard to scientifically deal with them. The more that the dualists ask us to look for is something that cannot be posed as problem, and therefore, cannot be dealt with under the framework of science. Emotions are personal. Language is a very poor tool to really express what we feel rendering these experiences effectively ineffable. That’s the first barrier. Language also becomes a problem when asked how much we feel of what we feel. An excitable, open person would tend to exaggerate and emphasize his expressions, whereas a quiet, closed up person would tend not to express his emotions much less than what he really feels. In some cultures it is a fashion to talk about your emotions all the time in a flamboyant manner (we’ve all watched Friends, right?), whereas in others it is seen as a sign of integrity to not wear your heart on your sleeve. How then can you even begin to design a scale on which emotions can be measured?

And then in jumps the problem of consciousness, grinning mockingly in your face. We feel what we feel because we are cognizant of these feelings. It seems to me that our consciousness is a huge 60ft screen onto which our physiology projects its biochemical reactions after due processing to make us in ourselves understand, within the framework and limitations of language (because that’s how we would finally express them), what is happening in response to a stimulus. I cannot even begin to imagine how the same stimulus, eliciting the same biochemical reactions in a lower life form, would be felt by that animal. How would it express it? Would it even feel the stuff the same way as us because it doesn’t have an advanced communication mechanism like language or art or music?

After rambling on for a page and a half, this leads me back to my original problem: can we theorize emotions? Hmmm. Let me, for a moment step outside my materialist armour and into the shoes of a dualist. Given the supposition that our consciousness is the screen on to which emotions are decoded and projected, theorising emotions becomes nearly impossible. Unless we have a theory that explains and describes consciousness, we cannot hope to theorise emotions because of the inherent inter-connectivity. In fact, so strong is this connectivity that there exists a curious disorder called the Cotard’s syndrome in which the patient thinks he is dead. Investigations using fMRI and MEG/EEG have revealed that the limbic system is completely disconnected from the rest of the brain in such patients. They walk around like zombies, devoid of any feeling of being conscious. Although this does lead us into the murky waters of the notion of free will being an illusion and therefore emotions being a veil, I choose not to get into that discussion because I neither know anything about it nor am I prepared to speculate on such a profound dialogue.

At what level then, can we theorise emotions? What makes a theory valid is the fact that it needs to be able to describe and predict a phenomenon given certain parameters and inputs. The brain is astoundingly stochastic and even the logic that follows from this probabilistic nature is fuzzy. Choosing what course to take when presented with a certain problem, the brain goes for the most optimal, most probable choice. This might be a teeny tiny probability; however, in comparison to other choices, it might be the best. This holds true even for the emotions that we feel. Here, I could hark back to Wilhelm Wundt’s theory. Or the Indian philosophy of the Nava Rasa — nine basic emotions. Certain biochemical reactions might elicit a number of responses, among which the brain has to decide which is the most optimal one it should project onto the screen of consciousness. These responses might be various combinations of the basic emotions of Wundt (their biochemical counterparts). Therefore, if we know what are the physiological states that accompany each basic emotion, what they depend on, the nature of the stimuli, and tens of other such parameters, we might be able to come up with stochastic models of the presentation of emotions.

Is this necessary, you may well ask. As my girlfriend would complain whenever I would try to ‘logically’ understand what the heck she was being weird about, “Do you have to analyse my moods as a scientific problem? Why don’t you just let it go and accept it for once?” Human life, its vagaries and miseries are not going to be solved even if we come up with the most amazing theory of emotions. Emotions are so personal that no one would want them to be stripped naked. Emotions make humans believe that they’re something special, and this is one feeling we as a species hold very dear. This is one thing that actually makes a rigorous physicalist like me step back and doubt my materialist philosophy. In the end, would it be really worth it?