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Society of Mind

16.10 adult emotions

Since emotions are few and reasons are many (said the robot, Giskard), the behavior of a crowd can be more easily predicted than the behavior of one person can. —Isaac Asimov

What are emotions, anyway? Our culture sees this question as a deep and ancient mystery. How could the idea of society of mind contribute to what our ancestors have said? Common-sense psychology has not even reached a consensus on which emotions exist.

Restlessness Fear Gladness Jealousy Sorrow
Curiosity Hate Enthusiasm Ambition Thirst
Infatuation Anger Admiration Laziness Disgust
Impatience Love Boredom Contempt Hunger
Excitement Greed Reverence Anxiety Lust

If there exists anger, what constitutes rage? How does fear relate to fright, terror, dread, dismay, and all such other awful things? How does love relate to reverence or to attachment or infatuation? Are these just various degrees of intensity and direction, or are they genuinely different entities that happen to be neighbors in an uncharted universe of affections? Are hate and love quite separate things, or, similarly, courage and cowardice — or are these merely pairs of extremes, each just the absence of its peer? What are emotions, anyway, and what are all the other things we label moods, feelings, passions, needs, or sensibilities? We find it hard to agree on the meanings of words like these, presumably because few of them actually correspond to clearly distinct mental processes. Instead, when we learn such words, we each attach to them variously different and personal accumulations of conceptions in our minds.

Infants' early emotion signs clearly signify their needs. We later learn to use such signals in more exploitative ways. Thus you can learn to use affection or anger as a social coin in trade for various accommodations; for example, one can pretend to be angry or pleased, or even offer — that is, threaten or promise — to become angry or affectionate in certain circumstances. Our culture is ambivalent about such matters; on one side we're taught that emotions should be natural and spontaneous; on the other side we're told that we must learn to regulate them. We recognize in deeds (though not in words) that feeling may be easier to understand and modify than other parts of intellect. We censure those who fail to learn to control their emotions but merely pity those whose problem-solving capabilities are poor; we blame for lack of self-control, but not for weakness of intelligence.

Our earliest emotions are built-in processes in which inborn proto-specialists control what happens in our brains. Soon we learn to overrule those schemes, as our surroundings teach us what we ought to feel. Parents, teachers, friends, and finally our self-ideals impose upon us new rules for how to use the remnants of those early states: they teach us how and when to feel and show each kind of emotion sign. By the time we're adults, these systems have become too complicated to understand. By the time we've passed through all those stages of development, our grown-up minds have been rebuilt too many times to remember or understand much of how it felt to be an infant.