Uncontrollably, Emotionally, Human

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“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

― Albert Einstein

There is a emotion center labelled in the brain. According to science, all emotion originates or is processed in the amygdala. Though thinking back, I have no idea whether the emotions are caused by the amygdala or affect it. Which roots back to the whole idea of perceptions – are they created by the brain or do they create brain activity by stimulating specific neural pathways. This depends on your philosophical viewpoint in a sense. On one hand you could believe that we should doubt our very existence, in which case, perceptual experiences are the result of our brain activity – our brain creates our experiences. Of course you could take it a step further and say we don’t even have a brain and we cannot know we exist in any form. Which quite frankly has always struck me as senseless. On the other hand, you could argue that we developed sophisticated sensory systems to be able to detect stimuli, we have studied these stimuli extensively, and the brain react to the stimuli. Which fits more with my practical side, but leave me with the problem of how does the brain construct the mental  images? I am still working on that one, hopefully I will have an answer to that, and in general the brain question (i.e. What does the brain do?) next week. For now, I shall return to the concept of emotions.

Emotions are a pretty busy and varied area of psychology so allow me to boil down the key issues with emotions as I see them:

  1. Science has located the biological center but cannot explain the mechanism
  2. Science tries to remove emotions from science, but this is essentially impossible – emotions are a part of us. I can’t stop my emotions any more effectively that I can stop breathing.
  3. Emotions impact everything we do – have you ever heard noticed how your emotions colour EVERYTHING! The same event, missing the bus is a totally different thing if you’re upset because you failed a midterm versus if you got a good night’s rest and are looking forward to a date.
  4. We are not always experts at emotions, they’re not always apparent.
  5. Emotions are either part of consciousness or born out of consciousness.

Sitting on the bus Tuesday night, I looked around and realized everyone was likely thinking something. Or so my female mind tells me (according to comedians it is actually possible for men to not be thinking ANYTHING). So everyone on the bus was thinking something. In my experience, everything to some degree has an evaluative component.

In mediating on emotions I came to a slow and peaceful realization of the distinction between the public and private emotions. We have the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve.” Meaning you make no attempt or are unable to conceal your emotions. I argue this is part of a more general expressiveness. People show the really powerful emotions, or they usually do – and which we see them naming them, we have no difficulty naming them. But what about mixed emotions? We do not always feel one thing.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Sitting on the bus, I can see people who are tired, but that, beyond, the concept of psychache,  is not really an emotion. I am sure they were thinking about things, feeling things under the surface, but superficially all I could see was the tiredness. Humans are capable of an unimaginable array of emotions, science has attempted to find a set of “core” emotions, basic things like anger, sadness, happiness, surprise. But we don’t always have these simple emotions that can be neatly packaged up. Sometimes our “head and our heart disagree” (i.e. our logical and rational thought system, wherever that is, and our emotions are telling us to do different things). And then things get messy. This is essentially why science tries to eliminate these things. Ironically, at least here in North America, we talk about how couples (particularly actors) “have great chemistry.” Somewhere Neils Bohr just turned over in his grave.

It’s the emotions that complicate the science of psychology. This boils down to an overarching experience or issue of things being made more complicated than they need to be and more simple than they can be. We can’t remove emotions from our experiences, they’re the very thing that taint our perception. So we try to remove emotions, be completely unbiased, my psych profs have repeatedly told me that we try to be interested in the results either way, out of scientific curiosity. Really, I don’t think that’s possible, yes some experiments may actually be interesting for interest sake, but we develop hypothesis – mini-theories of sorts that state what we are expecting to happen. To have those expectations invalidated is useful in allowing us to grow and learn, but at the same token, it sucks. It sucks to be wrong. And we get sad, or frustrated, disappointed, maybe even angry. Our hope that we are right, may guide our interpretations, our desire to avoid the negative emotions could affect how we interpret things. At the same time, we do not live in a vacuum – in the background, beyond the experiment is our lives. The things that really matter to us as individuals. We may be sad because of a break-up or dreading a visit from the in-laws (for the record, I have never had an awful boyfriend’s family experience, I’m starting to wonder why everyone dreads the in-laws) – and that affects how they carry out the experiment or interpret the results. It’s the same in daily life – like I mentioned before – say you just failed a midterm, and someone steps on your foot on the bus, you are going to react differently than if you just found out you aced the midterm.

So to say that science can remove emotions is laughable – you can’t – it is part of our consciousness. Are they consciousness? Well I guess that requires an understanding of consciousness, which could be an entire post on it’s own – but let’s do the SparkNotes version.

Consciousness=awareness of your existence
Unconsciousness=existing without awareness

People sometimes have talked about unconscious emotions – and I’ve read studies that demonstrate implicit feelings that individuals are unaware they’re feeling – racist reactions are a big one – i.e. science has supposedly proven that even if explicitly you state you are not racist, and your general behaviour agrees with that, there are subtle indicators of your us-them bias. Which is interesting, though at this point we may be stretching too far in our generalizations.

To what degree is the unconscious a valid indicator of someone’s emotions? To what degree do those “unconscious motives/emotions” guide our behaviour? This is the bedrock of the problem of whether emotions are consciousness or merely a part of consciousness. If they are our consciousness then should we not be able to label them all the time? Should emotions not guide everything? In class I argued, almost on a whim, on the basis that emotions affect everything, that emotions are consciousness. Sitting back and thinking about it though, emotions don’t necessarily affect everything. Motivation plays a huge part. Some may argue that this is just another more complex emotion, but I don’t think so. Emotions impact motivation potentially. But I don’t think that emotions are necessarily a part of everything, at least not on a conscious level. When I wait to cross the street, it is not because I fear getting hit by a car (which is technically valid), it is because that is social norm. When I climb the stairs (I might wish I had taken the elevator),  I am not feeling any emotion generally, at least not related to climbing the stairs.

After writing this, on a later bus ride I realized – was I perhaps unable to read the emotions of people on the bus because there were none? Is that possible? If emotions are to be consciousness, then they must always be present, we must be unable to evaluate or think without an associated emotion. But is exhaustion an emotion or a state of physical or mental existence?

I vacuumed Saturday morning, I was distracted thinking about other things I was going to do, but did I have an emotion or some sort of appraisal of vacuuming? No. I was simply doing something, yet I was conscious of that. Neutrality isn’t really an emotion. At the same background thoughts of future plans or past events may also be generating emotions that are completely unrelated. What is interesting and forms a sticking point for me, is how I may be unaware of emotions, I may even not be feeling anything – but when someone asks me how I am feeling, I can tell them…usually. Does this mean that emotions are part of the unconscious, the background noise of our lives that can be brought forward into consciousness? Or do we actually include emotions in all areas of our lives, we just don’t think of them as emotions because we do not have the language to articulate the emotions? Are thoughts as I watch people on the bus emotions, appraisals, or simply thoughts?

So emotions aren’t everything, motivations and social norms also play a role (though they too may be considered variations of emotional states), but emotions have the potential to impact everything.

In meditating on science and emotions and decision making an interesting concept became clear. We try to remove emotions when we make decisions or guide our behaviour because they can be rash, they are volatile and out of our control (much like our own consciousness – we can choose to ignore things, but this requires some degree of consciousness). Jury, business, and medical decisions are all supposed to be based on fact. Psychologists are expected to be completely unbiased, empathic, but not emotionally involved. We pretend that this is the way things actually are because if we accept that emotions can be illogical, AND we accept that they CANNOT be eliminated  from decisions, then our reasoning is not actually logical, and we are no longer wise and rational beings. We become a slave to the illogical, to the chaos of our minds. And yet when an individual completely lacks emotions, or the ability to show/react to emotions, like Dexter, we pathologize it. Something just isn’t right.

Basically? We want to have our cake and eat it too.

What is interesting to me is how different cultures deal with emotions and show them, and how that affects our understanding. For example, the Japanese are known for their lack of emotional expression (or at least traditionally). To say you’re depressed or display anger publicly is disapproved. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on eating disorders for various papers and proposals, and what strikes me is how the Japanese have been found to display a non-fat-phobic version of anorexia nervosa. I reference this to EDs in children, a growing area of research, as children are largely considered to be unable to articulate and understand their own emotional experiences, which could explain the atypical presentation in Japanese individuals – if emotional displays are not appropriate, like children, they may lack the fat phobic trait either because the expression may be foreign to them, or because culturally expression of such individual desires may be inappropriate.

How we experience and display emotions are partially culturally derived, but also inherently variant and potentially contradictory. For example, outside of NY, even if you are experiencing heart-wrenching pain, crying on public transit is generally bizarre. So maybe you put on a mask of calm, maybe even try some good ol’ fashioned opposite action and smile. Either way, public transportation is a no-cry zone. So emotions, in my opinion, are somewhat inevitable, displaying them is optional.

So scientists pretend to be unbiased, I don’t think that’s really possible. What is possible, is controlling your actions, somewhat. So science is essentially alogical because of the inductive reasoning, and illogical because it is tainted by emotions, and essentially science then becomes an exercise is how convincing you are. Not truly on how convincing the evidence is. I have read articles where the author talks up the results and then you examine yourself, and they’re significant, but only statistically so, in real life it is hardly worth any pomp and circumstance.

What about the really powerful emotions? Sometimes, you just feel too much – they become uncontrollable.

So what does this say about emotions?

As I’ve said before, emotions cannot be explained by the brain’s activities, I refuse to accept that emotions can truly be simply a neurochemical cocktail. I see emotions as both uncontrollable – you can’t control love, you can’t help but feel sad when someone you love dies – and at the same time incredibly malleable – which is the very principle behind cognitive behavioural therapies. But then what are emotions, scientists really hate the intangible, so I feel like I should come up with some sort of hypothesis that will eventually be proven wrong. I propose that this is essentially no different that perception to a degree. 

There is a chicken and the egg debate in both, and neither can pinpoint exactly how those neural signals are converted back into mental images of the sensory world. Maybe the difference with emotions is the evaluative component but also the fact that emotions are percepts of the unobservable.

I still have a long way to go in understanding emotions, a prelude to understanding my own emotions I suppose, but what is incredibly fascinating to me is that they are always changing. I think our emotions hold the power to alter the connections in our brains, to bias our perceptions and interpretations – a sort of stimulus acting on the brain from within whatever source of being defines that which science has yet to explain.

The science kids are confident that we only say science can’t explain things because it  hasn’t developed the technology to do so – but how can you boil something so potentially irrational and volatile down to a complex, but logically organized sequence of firing neurons and neurotransmitter releases? I don’t think science can or should explain emotions, but I still don’t agree that the reactions can be so instantaneous that we can experience the flashes of emotion. Science has done some pretty cool stuff, but please science – don’t take away the magic of love.

What do you think? Has science already explained the emotions? Will it? Should it?

Also, not a huge fan of making emotions a scientific theory – but this is pretty cool (don’t ask me why happiness is completely isolated)

emotions web

“I think there is something beautiful in reveling in sadness. The proof is how beautiful sad songs can be. So I don’t think being sad is to be avoided. It’s apathy and boredom you want to avoid. But feeling anything is good, I think. Maybe that’s sadistic of me.”

― Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Flawed but Useful: In Which I Defend the Process of Research

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

― Albert Einstein

The more I think about it the more I see that the process science, particularly psychology, uses may be flawed, but at the end of the day the result is still good.

Psychology, and arguably the other sciences in some experiments, is a field where through experience and thinking about things, you can often arrive at the same answer as a long and expensive experiment, but where that experiment still tells you nothing with certainty. I have noticed that in psychology, we have these theories, that in a sense guide our investigation of individuals, but we don’t necessarily use to know anything. Probably a by-product of the number of studies that are correlational in nature. Even when they are experimental, we come up with these cool results, but rather than proclaim them to the world, we downplay them and say, well they might not generalize, outside this setting, or we might have missed some other variable.

In a sense this almost seems to be a field aimed at confirming intuition. Of course, especially when it comes to mental illness and understanding how to best treat them, human instinct has come up with some pretty bizarre ideas. Some pretty damaging solutions. Does this mean that as a field it is flawed? No. Sometimes even science science gets it wrong (drug companies I’m looking at you).

There is always room for improvement.

Perhaps because of the nature of evolution and development? We are finding new answers not because our science was flawed but because humans have changed – our environment, physiology, work habits, mating practices – we are qualitatively different from the generations before us, and will be different from the ones that follow – with development comes new issues and old issues die off. Before the invention of cars, drunk driving wasn’t a problem, before medicine advanced allowing us to live longer, many of the problems of old age, such as dementia, were never experienced.

I have read articles exploring the idea that if our DNA is 99% identical to the apes, and we are classed as a different specifies, at what point while man kind again be classed as a different species. It is easy looking retrospectively at skeletons and say, their skeletons and tools look different. But our sizes and shapes have changed as a result of our sedentary lifestyle – I am quite sure hundreds of years from now, if anthropologists dug up our bodies, they would find a species with a c-curved spinal shape from our poor posture and tendency to look down at our phones – would they class us as the first of a new species? Would my grandparents be classed as homo sapiens and I as homo praesent (somewhat funny, apparently the Latin word for phone, is almost the same as “present” oh the irony…either that or Google translate is having a laugh because other sources told me the closest word is telephonatus)?

Just a thought.

So our tests might be wrong, that’s going to have to be okay, there’s not much we can do about it. Want to know how we validate our new tests? By measuring correlation with the old test, which we are now arguing was missing something. So we’re making sure this new test is good enough by making sure it lines up with the flawed test.

riiiggghhtBut let’s say this works, eventually you get back to the original test, how was that test validated? Everyone agreed? Given the amount of controversy in the field, and the fact that each new test is developed because the authors argue that the old measure isn’t good enough, I find this highly suspicious. There are literally hundreds of tests of depression. Hundreds. Of course it’s not that straight forward – we add in the idea of incremental validity, it has to predict something else. For scientists to accept a new measure there has to be something it adds – incremental validity, otherwise what’s the point. But the incremental validity seems no more valid than the idea of convergent validity supporting the validity of a test.

Many of these measures involve issues of clinical concern, say for example depression. If the previous measures were used to make diagnoses, and the diagnoses are used to form the groups to be compared in validating the discriminability and general validity of the new measure – how do we know that the previous measure wasn’t so flawed it misdiagnosed. Now your results are impacted by the inaccuracy of your groups. Yet we assume that this is not the case, we may be perpetuating diagnostic and measurement flaws.

At this point I really just seem to be a trouble-maker, raising issues without truly acknowledging the benefits and solutions.

So allow me to flip the coin.

Our measures are potentially flawed so why use them?

Because we need some way of understanding – so we generate tests aimed at capturing the generalities of the disorders, and we make ourselves aware that an atypical presentation is possible. Maybe the new tests are because we have learned more and we are trying our best to include all the specifics we know. The measures may be flawed, but at least they tell us something. To know nothing is terrifying and useless. Identification is the first step in treatment, not the last, so if our measure was flawed, the individual may not get the diagnosis, but they can still have the help. If they were diagnosed, essentially their treatment will be no different, except in cases where medication (i.e. antipsychotics for schizophrenics, or lithium for bipolar) is needed. Basically? We have to start somewhere.

Where do we start? With our understandings and interpretations of human behaviour. We cannot do like the theoretical physicists and think about our subject matter until the answer dawns on us (we we can but we have to have something to observe directly to spark our thoughts). While we have an intimate connection with  our subject matter, which could afford us access to more information, we are in a sense studying variations of ourselves. But we don’t necessarily understand our own mind, how are we to claim we understand the human mind – its functions, processes, limits, flaws, and potentials? The layman bases his understandings of others minds on how he would process the information, he doesn’t necessarily understand his own mind, but he uses his potentially flawed understandings to believe he understands the minds of others.

Psychologists adopt a much more rigorous methods, but we cannot completely detach ourselves from the issues of the laymen. Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should recognize that while we don’t always understand our subject matter, neither do scientists. Do they know what an atom looks like? No, it’s too small to observe, but based on their conceptualization (which took quite a few tries by the way), they conduct experiments and make predictions – they have no concrete knowledge of the nature of an atom, but they use the theory like it’s fact. Do they know how the heart functions completely undisturbed? No, they see how it functions through imaging techniques (which could disturb the function in some way) or through scopes or when the chest is open. That understanding is still very advanced, and so they use it in medicine. Do they always get the results they were expecting? No.

We think we understand, we sometimes do, but sometimes, we are surprised and learn something new.

As Claude tells us, it is only through being proven wrong that we learn anything.

Studying the human mind, means we will often be wrong, but we can accept this issue, because we also have the opportunity to learn/understand something – may not perfect knowledge, but for me there is no true distinction between knowing fact and believing fiction. Both depend on our appraisal of the information and our experience of knowledge and understanding. If we accept that there is no way of knowing then we are helpless to function, predict, and understand.

At the end of my seventh semester, halfway through my fourth year, do I have a solidified theory of the human mind? No, how could I? It’s much too diverse. I have theories of specific areas of the human mind but no theory can cover everything. We are too different with too many parts. And then there’s the issue of knowing more than we can explain – like knowing how to run without being able to explain how.

Life is complex, we are going to be wrong sometimes, but like I said, we have to start somewhere. I have no solution to this issue, I cannot make the measures perfect, I cannot predict much with absolute certainty. The only solution I can propose is to accept this – let it be ok to be wrong, accept that only in this moment is our explanation useful in any way. Accept that we don’t know things, but we can have ideas, it is not wrong to use these ideas. We have to start somewhere.

In my mind, if we can accept that our process is flawed and somewhat illogical, then we’re alright. As long as we accept that moving from the specific to the general isn’t exactly right, and because of that we cannot reasonably argue that our specific assumptions based on our potentially flawed generalizations, we cannot argue with absolute certainty that we are right, then we’re ok.

For a really interesting TED talk from Kathryn Schulz check out here.

“Without being sure of something, we can not begin to think about everything else.”

― Kathryn Schulz

Check out next week – Claude and I had some really interesting conversations on the brain and what it does, I’m working on some stuff, but my minds a little busy and these things are a little messy.

The Terror of Oneness

“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place.”

― Douglas Adams

This I think was the aha moment Claude was pushing me towards. It was almost painful in a sense, some of the things I have come to realize in the last few days, and yet it was incredibly exciting.

Ernest BeckerAfter watching videos from Shots of Awe and noticing Ernest Becker was repeatedly referenced I decided to pick up two of his books, I am choosing to start with The Birth and Death of Meaning, while I’m insanely busy the next two weeks I will let you know how the book goes. I’m almost afraid to start it, afraid that like the explosion of awareness that started Tuesday night, Becker’s words will consume my mind.

What struck me as I thought about the human aim, the singulars and the generalities, expectations, and the reasoning of science was the idea of oneness.

We believe in our oneness, we believe that our uniqueness is something to be applauded and recognized but on what grounds? Why, when you consider the number of homo sapiens that have existed, that continue to exist , would our existence matter? Throw in all the other carbon form forms, living and non, and the planets, starts, and galaxies, known and unknown, and it becomes terrifying how little we matter. How insignificant our existence becomes.

Science, perhaps rightly so, occasionally allows error, ignores the exceptions to the rule because even 5% is so insignificant when you consider the proportion relative to all the other ones in the universe. Yet, science usually says no – any error is too much, it is after all the reason the science kids scorn the psych kids. Perhaps this is because they realize the terror of the infinite – the idea that as time goes one we are essentially becoming less and less significant. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but it would explain their massive egos. If they make a massive contribution, they figure they count for more ones?

We realize that the human imagination is capable of infinite possibilities. Possibilities beyond reality, that we may never live to see come to see to fruition. And yet our significance, our life is incredibly, painfully, tragically, finite. Our existence is limited in many ways, even if our mind is not.

If we ignore the exceptions, discount them as too insignificant in the grand scheme of things – then we too, do not matter.

We work from generalities because the ones are too much to know. It is information overload. Perhaps psychology accepts this more because it see the vastness of the ones. Psychology is okay with being proven wrong, because the uniqueness of man, and the sheer number of people who have existed and continue to exist, means that it is incredibly likely that eventually an exception will be found.

Yet we have this need to understand, to grasp the infinite possibilities, the infinite nature of everything that is, has been, and will be and make it finite. Which is almost beyond our processing abilities – perhaps why people become experts and we all hate a know-it-all. To know everything, to know anything with absolute certainty is impossible. It may also be the reason we developed technology. Both to pull our ideas and conceptions into existence, and to remove some of the processing demands from our own minds; to free them up for bigger thoughts and allow us to see the infinite connections. To expand awareness beyond the limits of our biology. To create something less finite than our own existence. To go beyond our mortal flesh, beyond our impending loss of everything.

This has been an earth shattering realization for me – I am one in a sea of unknowable size, becoming less and less significant by the day. I have this finite existence, despite the infinite capacity of my mind. It has been suggested that the brain’s capacity for storage and processing is virtually limitless, but perhaps it is just that we have not the time to test it long enough to find the limits. If we are finite beings is our mind not something finite or does our mind go beyond our pitiful, insignificant existence? Do we suppose our minds are infinite and that we simply have not had the time to find it, to avoid the terror of the fact that our own lives are so finite? To avoid our own mortality? Is this an attempt by science to extend the human life, to conquer death, to make our bodies as infinite as our imaginations?

We have always grappled with this – it’s why the question of “Why am I here?” has plagued the minds of homo sapiens since we first developed the ability to think at such a level.

Is psychology then the study of the oneness? The careful studying of what makes us more than hydrogen atoms (not even water molecules) in an ocean? The attempt to find the things that bind us together to at least form a puddle. The drive to be a part of something that makes our own lives connected to something bigger so that we are no longer, the insignificant being that we fear we may be.

Feel small yet?

Feel small yet?

How about now?  For the record - one drop of water contains 1.39 time ten to the 21st (that's 21 zeros) molecules. Have I oversold this? Maybe, probably not when you consider EVERYTHING that has a will be. PS Catch the joke? ;)

How about now?
For the record – one drop of water contains 1.39 time ten to the 21st (that’s 21 zeros) molecules. Have I oversold this? Maybe, probably not when you consider EVERYTHING that has a will be.
PS Catch the joke? 😉

Maybe that’s why adolescence is so tough – the stereotypical cry of “You don’t understand! No one understands what I am going through!” (which I admit, I was not immune to, I was a teenager not so long ago, in fact I think I used the big kid variation last week.) is evidence perhaps that in adolescence, the whole spotlight effect is because we feel our oneness more deeply as we try to separate from our parents, the whole autonomy struggle psychology is always talking about. We try to become this one and it terrifies us, so in adulthood we seek out this understanding of a connectedness, the patterns and generalities that make us less alone.

Beyond the oneness, I see psychology as the study of thought, behaviour, emotion, and neurological functioning. Of existence, humanity, culture and uniqueness.

The study of the ties that bind, and the threads of the rope.

It seeks to expand our awareness of existence in ways technology has perhaps not expanded enough to grasp. Existence beyond the limits of ourselves, yet flowing back on the oneness at the same time. A perpetual cycle to understand humanity in an attempt to understand ourselves, which we use to understand humanity.

A cycle not unlike that of knowledge acquisition.

Wow. Just wow. What a week.

What do you think? Does the idea of oneness and complete insignificance terrify you? Do you think it somewhat explains mental illness? Perhaps is mental illness simply a reaction to this realization in some way? At least some of them?

Is that what psychology is?

Tell me down below what you think.

“The only thing that scares me more than space aliens is the idea that there aren’t any space aliens. We can’t be the best that creation has to offer. I pray we’re not all there is. If so, we’re in big trouble.”

― Ellen DeGeneres