Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Emotion and Reason (continued from History Lessons)

I'm starting a new thread, because we've gone far astray from the original topic.

Ira said:

Anything learned independent of reasoning powers *cannot* be unlearned by reasoning! Our emotional system prevents us from unlearning those things as a way of preserving "tribal" customs and protecting the greater society. .......

I disagree with the above and the model that produced it. This particular model fails to take into account the fact that emotions and reasoning interact in ways that modify both emotion and reasoning. There are multiple scripts or voices that compete with one another in our minds. Certainly some of those scripts are dominated by emotional voices and some by purely rational voices, but they contain both. We need to settle on some definitions and determine what we accept as evidence.

For example: Let's say an outside stimulus to our nervous system is interpreted as a sensation, which in turn produces an emotion we call pleasure. In humans that interpreter lies in the rational part of the brain. During learning, a mental template is produced with a bunch of associations and conditions which must be satisfied in order to feel an emotion.

In that context I need to ask Ira what is meant by "Anything learned independent of reasoning powers....." The proof that this is not the case is the fact that the very same stimulus to the nervous system may be produced by different sources. As a result, different emotions and consequent actions are produced. when exactly the same gentle touch on the arm is furnished by an unknown source, a woman, a man or a snake. Information is combined with sensation to trigger emotion. I would rather say that emotions are hard-wired not learned. The things that trigger emotions are subject to learning and therefore to reasoning. If this were not the case, then a child who is bitten by a dog and feels fear after that, would never grow up to love dogs later in life. But, perhaps I'm just misinterpreting what Ira has said. Terminology in the domain of the mind is very malleable.

[Edited by Ira to correct typo and format long quote and paragraphs]

3 comments:

Stu Denenberg said...

This is a very interesting thread that Ira and Joel are spinning out.

The Buddhist take on this would be that we have perceptions (gathered by our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing perceptors) which cause sensations in our mind. How we react to them determines our karma and if we don't react at all then no karma is generated and eventually we are reincarnated to a state where no karma is generated during our life and the reincarnation wheel stops and we are in nirvana (in 50 words or less).

I would add that someone has written (whose name escapes me at this moment)that emotions are just "high energy thoughts" and this seems to fit with Joel's argument that thought and reason are complicated and interdependent processes. On the other hand, Ira's argument is also very satisfying.

We may not reach the "truth" of the matter here in this part of cyberspace but it sure is fun trying...

Ira Glickstein said...

From Ira, Re Emotion and Reason

Thanks Joel for starting a new main Topic -- this is a great topic area for continued discussion.

I agree with you that emotion and reason interact in ways that modify both. Your example of a "gentle touch on the arm" triggering very different emotions when the person touched does not know the source versus when he knows the source. Further, if the known source is "a woman, a man or a snake" the emotions triggered will be very different!

Great example!

My statement was too concise and too general. Let me go into greater detail to give you a better idea of the truth I was trying to encapsulate.

Let us start with animals that have far less brain power than humans: birds. You are no doubt aware that many birds are subject to what is called "imprinting" for about the first 36 hours after hatching. They fix on whatever they see moving during that period as their "mother". Konrad Lorenz famously got geese chicks to imprint on his wading boots and they followed him until they reached adulthood!

Imprinting in many birds is basically irreversible. After the critical 36 hour period is over, they can no longer be imprinted on their actual mothers!

This makes sense from a survival point of view. In the wild, it is normal for a chick to be tended to by its mother and it is necessary for a chick to follow its mother and learn to fly and hunt without being distracted by other animals.

Similarly, a songbird chick learns a particular variant of the species song common to their group and different from conspecifics who may live nearby.

If a songbird chick is raised in captivity and kept away from adult birds, it will sing a primitive version of that song. If a recording of a different group's variant song is all a chick hears during the critical period, it will sing that variant.

Again this makes sense in the wild, where groups of conspecifics compete for real estate and adolescent birds must know how to identify friend from foe. When a properly socialized songbird hears a "foreign" version of the species song, it reacts with anger and attacks or flies away.

So, what does this have to do with humans whose brains are far more complex?

Prior to a couple thousand years ago, nearly all humans lived and died in the same area and hardly ever met anyone from outside that area. Our brains and customs developed during that time. Genetically and memetically we are strangers to dense multi-racial and multi-cultural civilization.

Tribes living in the same area competed for real estate and other resources and it was therefore critical to be able to tell who was in your tribe and who was not. Like the birds in the above example, each tribal group had a slightly different dialect. They also marked their faces and had slightly different dress codes.

All this they inherited from their primate forebears who developed this identification capability over millions of years.

Today, we know that a child, especially before the age of seven, may learn several languages and speak each of them without an "accent". (Or, more precisely, speak them with the dialect of the person who teaches them.) However, if a new language is learned after puberty, that person will almost certainly speak with a "foreign" accent, easily distinguished by "native" speakers of that language.

Thus, while humans are not subject to imprinting, per se, where a curtain comes down at 36 hours and cuts off all new learning in a given area, they are subject to a fixation of language accent over a period of seven to twelve years. This is a holdover from our eons of tribal life.

As a child, many of my relatives and neighbors spoke with various foreign accents and I learned to accept and understand people who spoke English differently from me. However, I have met other adults who have great difficulty understanding non-standard English. They are xenophobic and become angry when connected to a help desk located in India or the Phillipines or even Ireland! Some people who have never left New York City are offended by those with a "southern" accent, and vice-versa.

When a new chimp takes over a
troop, he will often become angry with the young male offspring of his predecessor and chase them away or kill them. We sometimes see similar behavior in humans when a step-father (or step-mother) takes over a family. This behavior makes sense in the wild where the chimp needs to assert his claim as "alpha male" and make room for his progeny. It is tragic when it happens in human society. I think reason may help, but, never-the-less, when resources are short, step-fathers will abuse their stepchildren and find it all but impossible to ignore the deep anger against them that has its source in millions of years of evolution!

Similarly, we know that adults who were abused as children are quite likely to visit similar abuse on their children. It may not be imprinting, per se, when we see our father abuse our mother, however, it is at least "indoctrination" of a sort that we may be powerless to control when we become adults.

We use the word "phobia" to describe the unreasonable, excessive fear of something. Some phobias, such as snakes and spiders, seem to have something of a genetic basis or pre-disposition. Other phobias come from traumatic events at a young age or from parents who have a given phobia and indoctrinate it into their children.

Since phobias are, by defintition, UN-reasonable, they are highly resistant to cure by simple reasoning. A true phobia will take multiple sessions of cognitive behavior therapy and repeated desensitation exercises, and, in some cases, even that won't help.

So to sum it all up, I over-generalized and wrote too concisely. What I meant to say was that things learned as a youth tend to stick with a person as an adult, unless that person works very hard, with assistance, to overcome that learning. Since most of us are unlikely to seek assistance or work hard to change some view we believe, in our heart of hearts, is correct, we are stuck, for life, with much of the attitudes and opinions we learned as children.

Often, we do not know the source of our emotions. Why do some people become angry when they see a homosexual couple (or a bi-racial couple) cuddling in public, while they would not give a second thought to a "normal" couple doing the same acts? Why are some people so xenophobic?

Why do we have such well-developed and powerful emotional systems? Natural selection is pretty economical in most areas, so why did it result in so much brainpower being devoted to emotional responses? To me, the only explanation that makes sense is that rich emotional systems gave us survival and reproductive advantages over the long period it took for them to become fixed. I believe most of them still have survival and reproductive advantages. I also believe we are "stuck" with them and need to make the best of them.

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

Ira's statement:

"Genetically and memetically we are strangers to dense multi-racial and multi-cultural civilization. "

is supported by an article I read (will try to find the source) which concluded that communities with the most diversity had the lowest levels of trust amongst its members. And this was true even between the same ethinic groups!

Stu