Feeling Machines

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Dr. Philip Grossi
Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Recently I was moving some books from one room to another when I saw a book written in 1884 by the famous psychologist, William James. In the book he discussed the physiology of feeling states. This got me to thinking that he had conflated emotion and feeling, a common conflation often heard in the office.  What then is the difference between emotion and feeling? Emotions are unlearned, programmed automatic actions such as external motions, internal motions, or even release of molecules with some cognitive component used in a strategic way to manage the challenges and opportunities of life.  Emotion often regulates drives, motivation, and reward/punishment routines with a homeostatic goal. The emotional experience of happiness in two members of the same species is essentially the same.   Feelings are compulsive perceptions of the emotional action programs, real or simulated, states of altered resources, or deployment of responsive scripts. These are represented in specific brain regions such as the insula, the cingulate gyrus, and the amygdala.  We are always in an emotional state in response to the world and its challenges or opportunities. Emotions are transmitted by the genome and are conserved across species and through evolutionary time. We are always in an emotional state except when asleep or in a coma. We humans are constantly being confronted by events and are constantly reacting to and thinking about them.  The emotional degree of engagement is dependent upon their importance of those happenings to us. These emotional programs have been in place through evolutionary time and are short cuts  to decisions relative to threats such as predation, dangerous environmental hazards, or adverse weather events or alternatively opportunities which are either organized around seeking food or sex. While these processes are automated and unconscious, once they are perceived and made conscious they enter the thought flow and can be used subsequently for planning. The rationalist view of human nature glorifies rational decision making processes which depends on facts and logical analysis and eliminates what is viewed as the negative influence of emotion. This is a view which overlooks the important biological and evolutionary facts that animals, many much more primitive that we are, manage the challenges posed by living, sometime in a very inhospitable environment, frequently with great speed and without being able to think.  If someone experiences emotions such as fear, anger, disgust, happiness or sadness there will be concomitant changes in the body such as changes in body temperature, circulation, heart rate, and increased motility of the intestines.  These are recorded and stored for future reference and can be used in planning for future like circumstances. We are indeed feeling machines.

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