2004-01-20: Emotion


The Science of Sentiment (2001)

by Dylan Evans (1966-)

This is an introductory book by a researcher in AI/Cognitive Science who specializes in emotions. The book has some interesting information, and ways of classifying emotions. It also distinguishes emotions from moods. However, it doesn’t get into the differences or functional distinctions between emotions, moods, attitudes, etc.

The first distinction Evans makes is between “basic emotions”, “higher cognitive emotions” and “culturally specific emotions”.

The basic emotions include joy, distress, fear, anger, surprise, disgust. They are as innate as anything in our mental makeup, and universal in all humans who are exposed to them. They are similar in many non-human creatures as well, depending on primitive parts of the brain that are present in a wide range of vertebrates.

Higher cognitive emotions depend at least in part on activity in the cortex or neocortex of the brain, and are largely unique to higher mammals and humans. These include love, guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, envy and jealousy.

Some are culturally specific. An example from the Gururumba people of New Guinea is known (in English) as ‘being a wild pig’. A man (never a woman) in this state behaves like a wild pig: running wild, looting articles of small value, and attacking bystanders. (I doubt that wild pigs in New Guinea loot articles of small value). As Evans says: “the emotion is seen as an unwelcome but involuntary event, and so people suffering from it are given special consideration, which includes temporary relief from their financial obligations. By a curious coincidence, it so happens that the emotion is mainly experienced by men aged between 25 and 35 – precisely the age when they first encounter the financial difficulties that arise in the early years of marriage. How fortunate it is that, just when a man’s economic obligations increase, he may experience an emotion that causes others to allow him some leeway in meeting those obligations.”

An example of a cultural variation in the understanding of emotions is in the Japanese word amae. This is the name of an emotion that Evans experienced as a teenager, after joining a local garage band. He describes it thus: “After the first rehearsal, we sat around planning our careers in the music business. It was then that Tim told me how happy he was that I had joined the band. I can still remember vividly the intense reaction that comment produced in me. A warm wave spread outwards and upwards from my stomach, rapidly enveloping the whole of my upper chest. It was a kind of joy, but unlike any moment of joy I had felt before. It was a feeling of acceptance, of belonging, of being valued by a group of people whom I was proud to call my friends.” Years later he found “That the word amae means just the kind of ‘comfort in another person’s complete acceptance’ that I felt when Tim made his comment. The original Chinese ideogram was of a breast on which the baby suckled, which suggests that this emotion involves a loss of separateness, a return to the sense of oneness that fuses mother and child together in the first months of life.” The cultural contrasts between Westerners, who value individuality over the group, and Japanese, who evidently value group harmony much more than we do, explain why one culture has a single word for an emotion, and the other has to use many to express it.

Evans mentions that some believe certain higher cognitive emotions to be culturally specific. For instance, C. S. Lewis wrote a treatise to explain that the emotion of enduring romantic love was invented in Europe in the twelfth century, as ‘courtly love’. This view is hard to understand, with many much older expressions in the Bible and other literature. It probably says something interesting about Lewis.

Evans discusses some of the neurochemistry of emotions, and dwells on the roles of drugs as ‘the chemical route to happiness’ (abusing the word ‘happiness’ to do so).

He discusses efforts to make robots have emotions, but the discussion is almost pointless. It is amusing that one of the further readings he recommends on this subject is Isaac Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man.

The book might be a useful introduction for people with little exposure to cognitive science, but I would rather read something a little more disciplined and functionally oriented. I have found a similar disappointment in Marvin Minsky’s The Emotion Machine.


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