Emotion, Spirituality, and Words

Posted in culture on April 11th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

In 2003 I started looking at the science of emotion in order to determine if it would be useful for robots. When I had to do an English paper that year (middler year writing at Northeastern University) I decided it would be something about emotions, but I wasn’t sure at first what the specific theme would be. One question I had was, why do people often associate emotion with spirituality (or do they)?

Is it simply that some people never bothered to consider how emotion works, so it just gets classified with other mysterious phenomena like spirits? Or is it because religion has laid claims to human emotion?

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk to a religious leader to get the theological point of view. I was aware of the Unitarian Universalists which have a mixture of various faiths and “spiritual” members that aren’t hardcore religious. I had a meeting with the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church of Harvard Square in Cambridge MA, who at that time was Dr. Thomas J.S. Mikelson. I didn’t record the meeting unfortunately (I couldn’t afford recording devices back then). I was pleased to find that he seemed to be familiar with some of the emotion books I was reading back then by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

If I remember correctly, Mikelson told me that the word “spiritual” is actually relatively new. Or perhaps the modern usage and popularity of it are new. I’m not sure about its popularity, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [1], “spiritual” has been used in most of its current senses since at least the 1300s. The exception is the sense of “spiritual home”:

(with no religious connotation), a place or milieu, other than one’s home, which seems especially congenial or in harmony with one’s nature, or to which one feels a sense of belonging or indebtedness.

OED’s earliest quote of “spiritual home” is from 1932. As an aside, it’s too bad that the usage of “spiritual” to mean “Of transcendent beauty or charm” is obsolete (according to OED):

1481 Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ii. iv. 69 Ther ben yet plente of other places so delectable, so swete, and so spyrytuel that yf a man were therin, he shold saye, that it were a very paradys.

The word “emotion” cropped up in 1579. First we see these now-obsolete usages:

  1. “A moving out, migration, transference from one place to another.” (1600s)
  2. “A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense).” (1600s-1800s)
  3. “A political or social agitation; a tumult, popular disturbance.” (1500s-1700s)

Then we get to a modern usage starting in the 1600s:

Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

Here are some quotes:

1660 Bp. J. Taylor Dvctor Dvbitantivm (R.), The emotions of humanity..the meltings of a worthy disposition.

1762 Ld. Kames Elem. Crit. ii. §2. (1833) 37 The joy of gratification is properly called an emotion.

Then we get to an even more modern usage from psychology:

A mental ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’ (e.g. of pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, surprise, hope or fear, etc.), as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. Also abstr. ‘feeling’ as distinguished from the other classes of mental phenomena.

The quotes for that start in the 1800s:

1808 Med. Jrnl. XIX. 422 Sea-sickness..is greatly under the dominion of emotion.

1841–4 R. W. Emerson Friendship in Wks. (1906) I. 81 In poetry..the emotions of benevolence and complacency..are likened to the material effects of fire.

1842 C. Kingsley Lett. (1878) I. 61 The intellect is stilled, and the Emotions alone perform their..involuntary functions.

1871 J. Tyndall Fragm. Sci. (ed. 6) II. xi. 231 He..almost denounces me..for referring Religion to the region of Emotion.

1875 B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) I. 249 The..emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances.

It’s interesting to see how the concept of emotion seemed to come from movement and disturbance, changed into personal mental disturbances, and then became distinguished from conscious cognition.

I’m leaning towards the premise that most people don’t care how emotions work or why there’s a concept of spirituality and use them as umbrella terms to cover a wide range of stuff without much regard for details or theories.

But was there ever a thread in history that that really tried to associate human emotions (even if that word wasn’t used) with intangible spirits or gods?

I suppose the other frail connection that might exist in people’s minds between emotion and spirituality is due to the never-ending attempt to preserve something special or divine about humanity. Some will always grasp for some lifeboat that is supposedly unique to humans and not available (at least not as much) to other animals or machines, such as “emotion” or “feeling” or “intelligence” or “winning at Jeopardy”…

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011.

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Mel Hunter’s Lonely Robot

Posted in culture on February 27th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

During my adventures through the mysterious evo-devo circus freakshow known as childhood, I found myself encountering a lot of science fiction stories and art from 1950s-1970s. Old issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I recovered from the dump were just as interesting to my larval mind as pornography.

The one cover that I remember the most was Mel Hunter‘s depiction of a retro-futuristic vacuum tube powered robot, sitting alone in a post-apocalyptic world, listening to a vinyl record.  This was one of several covers by Hunter featuring the lonely robot.

May 1960 issue of F&SF

May 1960 issue of F&SF

Recently, I saw the painting in real life (unless it was a reproduction?) at Boskone, a science fiction literature convention in Boston.

Photo of Mel Hunter painting at Boskone

Photo of Mel Hunter painting at Boskone 48

Some people might assume that the lonely robot had something to do with the apocalypse. However, I interpret it to show the sad fate of a robot more rugged than biological life.

The image reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In that story, a home automation system continues working day after day despite that all the humans are gone, like an artificial mega-Jeeves except without the kind of common sense that would make it realize its owners were dead. One day the house is destroyed by a fire.

Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”

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A Dreadful Fine Title Page: Or, A Vast Amount of Absolutely Necessary Information

Posted in culture, humor on August 17th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

This is the title page of an 1879 dictionary I have:


The full title is 506 characters. That’s 3.61 tweets!

And it’s quite the self-marketing title–in a single 512-page book they have amassed every useful word and a vast amount of absolutely necessary information. It reminds me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a bit.


The title of this post is taken from the absolutely necessary section of the book called “SLANG AND VULGAR PHRASES” which informs us that “dreadful fine” is a contradiction. Here are few interesting quotes from that section:

At loggerheads is uncouth.
Bad box.—“He is in a bad box” has a vulgar air. Say bad predicament, or unpleasant situation.
Comeatable, for approachable; as, “European monarchs are not easily comeatable.”
Fizzle should be applied only to inglorious failures.
Full chisel.—“He went full chisel” is an absurd expression. Say “as fast as he could,” or “he ran his best.”
“How’s yourself, this morning,” savors of the familiarity that breeds contempt.
Otherguess, for otherguise, very different from, or superior to
A precious mess, a pretty kettle of fish, mean nothing.
Crank, for pert, saucy; as, “He was so crank that he was little respected.” New England.

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What does SynapticNulship mean?

Posted in meta on December 28th, 2009 by Samuel Kenyon

I have been using the handle SynapticNulship for several months, and now it is the title of this blog.  I created this term because it conveys my interest in cognitive neuroscience combined with the concept of an advanced flying device.  A nullship is an antigravity conveyance—one might imagine a small volantor (flying car) or a large hovering ship not limited by typical aircraft lift constraints.  I was introduced to this word via a Heinlein novel that I read as a teenager (unfortunately, searching for “nullship” on the web turns up almost…null).  Spelling “null” as “nul” is unnecessary, but it could be considered an extra nod to computer nerds and those into the whole brevity thing.  A synapse is an interface between neurons in the brain, and the brain (along with the rest of the nervous system) is the captain’s chair of the mind (not the best metaphor but it sounds cool).  That notion paired with the notion of a futuristic antigravity ship results in a vague sense of flying above current minds with future technology.  Or it could mean a rising propelled by one’s mind.

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