The Future of Emotions

I recently happened upon an article [1] about the work of Jennifer Lerner:

Lerner is best known for her research on two topics: the effects of emotion on judgment and decision making, and the effects of accountability on judgment and decision making. Recently, along with a number of National Science Foundation-supported scientists, she appeared on the PBS program “Mind Over Money,” a look at the 2008 stock market crash and the irrational financial decisions people make.

How the human emotional architecture fails us in modern life has been an interest of mine for a long time. Emotions seem to be an integral part of human decision making, but can we improve human emotional systems for the more dangerous and complicated situations existing in the modern world? I am reminded of an essay called “Neo-Emotions” that I wrote in 2005 [2], which I will re-post right here, and then I will mention some of the criticism of that article.


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One of my hypotheses right now is that emotions often seem irrational to us simply because many of them are outdated to work with modern situations, culture, and technologically-enabled existence.  The solution is to develop neo-emotions.  A neo-emotional system would take whatever beneficial roles existing emotional systems provide, and extend and modify these roles to better suit the environment.

A trivial example of primitive survival emotions influencing a modern situation negatively is the neuroeconomics experiment, in which most people will choose $10 now rather than $11 tomorrow [3].  I have seen this in action many times in bargaining situations (at yard sales, flea markets, etc.)—“Do you want $20 for this widget today or $50 possibly never?” Afterwards you can make pure logical defenses that you chose the money today because you thought the probability of the greater sum later was unlikely, but your quickly-made choices are more likely to have been driven from emotional underpinnings.

That instance may seem too minor for any concern, but imagine the possibility that a good deal of your decisions are being made with biological control systems developed for animals in the wild.  Inappropriate emotions can also come from low-level fear responses and conditioning.  “The brain seems to be wired to prevent the deliberate overriding of fear responses…Our brains seem to have been designed to allow the fear system to take control in threatening situations and prevent our conscious awareness from reigning” [4].  Decisions made from what some call “negative emotions” can sometimes be devastating depending on the situation [5]:

For instance, in 1963, when John F. Kennedy learned that the Soviets had brought nuclear missiles to Cuba, he became enraged, taking it as a personal affront—after all, the Soviet ambassador had assured him just months before that such as thing would never happen.  But Kennedy’s closest advisors deliberately made the effort to help him calm down before deciding what steps to take—and so may have averted a world war.

The need for neo-emotions may seem like a general statement that is hard to test unequivocally.  In some soft form, people may already be attempting neo-emotions through various inefficient and temporary means.  Part of the reason I thought of it in the first place, however, is that we can perform autonomous software agent experiments to confirm or falsify the hypothesis that emotional systems (which develop both phylogenetically and ontogenetically) become outdated/useless/dangerous in more complex environments.  A “more complex environment” includes the notion of rapid change in new ways, especially for high-level structures; by “high-level” we mean constructed from many stages of lower levels down to the original environment.  The complex environment also includes cultural structures and resources that may have become integral to the generations.  Any environment similar to ours should have always been dynamic, of course; indeed, you could include unexpected devastating natural events as a type of environment in which an organism is suddenly ill-equipped to operate/survive.  The quickest analogy to the human situation would be future shock in a techno-industrial world, but that is a crude fit.  For humans the problem is particularly hairy: high-level environment structures store knowledge, and this “extelligence” [6] interacts through culture with individuals.

We can still start with simple experiments.  Emotional systems are most likely substrate independent—and therefore applicable to artificial intelligence, both software-only agents and embodied robots.  But a robot’s needs may not result in the same kind of neo-emotions.  Some people will instantly retort that emotions are unexplainable, not replicable in machines, etc.  This is not the place for a detailed history of emotion and arguments of what emotion is; suffice it to say, many researchers in the realms of biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, etc., have attempted to define and work with emotions at least with respect to their field.  Summarily, emotion includes various brain/nervous-system processes, external behaviors, mental states, body states (e.g., facial expressions), social feelings, cultural notions, and more.  The word “emotion” itself has only been in regular use since the early 1800s as a catch-all term overlapping passions, sentiments, feelings, and affections [7].  These terms were associated with soul and will; even now some researchers think emotion may be foundational to consciousness [8].  Emotion is intertwined with the entire evolutionary biological and socio-cultural landscape and is linked to many hot buttons.

One question that people might ask is: Will I end up as an über-rational machine?  Well, how do you define rationality?  Perhaps a perceived slice of a neo-emotional person could seem cold, harsh, or too rational, I’m not sure.  Internally, things will certainly not be just the deliberative, deductive, planning capabilities of current humans.  It will be better than that, possibly involving different types of priorities/overrides of deliberative vs. emotional vs. reflexive (this is a simplification) and more self-reprogrammable parts of emotional associations, conditioned learning, etc.

That does not mean I want us to mutate into the type of sentience like an Outer Limits alien asking an Earthling scientist, “What is love?” or a Terminator trying to figure out why we cry.  What a species needs, if this turns out to be a real issue in some form, is to modify/extend the emotions.  “Evolution made our brains so smart that we ended up building environments that made some of our mental resources obsolete…We are not slaves to our emotions, but they are hardly at our beck and call either” [4].  It would be interesting to see if giving more control to the neocortex over the amygdala would result in better-functioning humans.  But that seems too narrow a solution, especially since there is still much to learn about the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of emotions; indeed, the human emotional architecture is not limited to just the amygdala.

Unfortunately, the word “emotion” is a tangled, many-faceted collection of often inconsistent concepts, but at the very least your emotional system is an intertwined part of your mind, and as such is involved with matters of your body and interacting/communicating with other bodies.  So it may or may not be very difficult to improve one part of, for instance, the brain, without having to tweak many other factors.  Neo-emotional architectures may only come from a complete overhaul of our standard equipment wetware, or maybe just a simple matter of explicit training (with the help of extelligence) combined with tightly-coupled human-computer interaction (not necessarily invasive).  I definitely do not think any pseudo-psychological self-help book series will do the trick.  Drugs could play a part, but we don’t want to aim for the stoic zombie society of the movie Equilibrium.  Again, the concept of neo-emotions is not about utter suppression of existing emotional/feeling faculties.

Please note that the need for neo-emotions has nothing to do with the psychological construct and commercial self-help meme known as “emotional intelligence” (see [9] for a comprehensive summary and critique of EI).  Certainly recognizing emotion as a major factor in normal human operations and trying to account for them in an individual is a step in the right direction, though.  Identifying some of the so-called mental afflictions and destructive emotions could provide examples of where neo-emotions would have served better.  Here is a relevant sample of the Dalai Lama discussing the subject [5]:

What impact do our destructive emotions—hatred, prejudice, and so forth—have on the society as a whole?  What role are they playing in the tremendous problems and sufferings that society is experiencing right now?…Are these destructive emotions to which we are subject at all malleable?  If we were to diminish them, what kind of impact would that have on society as a whole and on the myriad problems that society is experiencing?

However, it is not simply a matter of emotions being destructive, or destructive on a large scale.  We especially don’t want to cut the sources of emotions that could still be essential for our survival even in a modern world.  Also, neo-emotions would not be a mere diminishing of certain emotions through whatever training or mental exercises a human can muster—they would involve changes and extensions that could result in something very hard to imagine with our current understanding.

We have to be careful not to blindly promote the dichotomy between “rationality” and “emotion” (or worse “cognition” and “emotion”) although at certain levels of detail it may be useful.  Mythical symbolic notions of the heart versus the brain should stay in fiction.  Some people seem to think that emotion can be secluded to a little black box, a module that is simply thrown into the mind mix.  This view rarely helps figure out how emotions work and how they evolved.  Again, I must stress that our notions of emotions are actually describing several interlocked processes in our brains (and other parts of our bodies), in which it becomes difficult to separate out deliberation, planning, rationality—these ideal constructions make it sometimes easier and sometimes harder to figure out how the brain works and how to simulate it.  The point is: do not assume that potential neo-emotional brain-body systems will be simple extensions of an uncorrelated emotional system.


Well, first, I can criticize the article myself because I didn’t propose in detail various ways to achieve Neo-Emotions. Hopefully I can elaborate more in the future.

One blogger mentioned my article in 2005 [10], saying:

Ah, but our intellects are not so dark that they can’t pull themselves up by their own boot-straps! Or at least that’s what the transhumanists would have us believe.

Yes, perhaps we can change our emotions to better suit our competitive environment. We’ll get rid of pity and love, and replace them with ruthlessness and hatred. Sounds like “Genesis of the Daleks.” Or maybe just your NOW feminist.

And we haven’t even touched on the weirdest “improvement” on nature : the incredible self-mutilation of Michael Jackson. This would be funny if it weren’t true.

Ah, but it is funny.

Of course, I don’t want mental modifications to go the way of Michael Jackson’s face. And Mr. Gage raises a good point—what if people modified their emotions, not just to make better decisions, but for competitive gain? Would people really increase their ruthlessness?

I don’t think it’s that simple—as I keep saying, emotion cannot be so easily decoupled from the rest of the brain’s activities. But if we look to the existing outliers, like psychopaths, perhaps there is a danger of self-modifications resulting in similar mindsets. I don’t think that kills the concept of modifying the emotional aspect of the human mind, it just highlights the difficulty of changing evolutionarily-old structures to better handle our relatively new artificial environments and experiences.

[1] B. Mixon Jr. & NSF, “Personal Question Leads Scientist to Academic Excellence“, LiveScience, September 1, 2011.
[2] S. H. Kenyon (as Flanneltron), “Neo-Emotions.” Transhumanity, Feb. 14, 2005.
[3] L. Brown, “Why Instant Gratification Wins: Brain battle provides insight into consumer behavior.” Betterhumans, Oct. 2004. Available:
[4] S. Johnson, “The Brain + Emotions: Fear.” Discover, pp.33-39, March 2003.
[5] D. Goleman, et al, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bantam, 2003, pp.87,223-224.
[6] I. Stewart and J. Cohen, Figments of Reality: The Origins of the Curious Mind. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
[7] K. Oatley, Emotions: A Brief History. Blackwell, 2004, p.135.
[8] A. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conciousness. Harcourt, 1999.
[9] G. Matthews, M. Zeidner, & R.D. Roberts, Emotional Intelligence: Science and Myth. MIT Press, 2002.
[10] L. Gage, “Infant Formula, ‘Neo-Emotions,’ and the Incredible Melting Celebrity“, Real Physics (blog), March 03, 2005.

Image Credit: Zofie

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