Try Again

So I was reading this piece in the NYT: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.”

I have some problems with its theory of mind:

Your brain engages in the same sort of prospection to provide its own instant answers, which come in the form of emotions. The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments, according to researchers in a new field called prospective psychology. Emotions enable you to empathize with others by predicting their reactions. Once you imagine how both you and your colleague will feel if you turn down his invitation, you intuitively know you’d better reply, “Sure, thanks.”

Ugh. I can see why this guy is all excited about this, but he’s missing some crucial ingredients. We may be planning creatures, true, and that is important, but our ‘plans’ are made up of present judgments that come very, very quickly, and the past is constantly bubbling up to influence those present judgments. To say we are prospective creatures is to oversimpify – rather, we are present creatures with complex pasts AND futures. Ask a victim of abuse or trauma whether or not they spent all their time thinking about the future, or whether someone from a poor background and low education (that pesky past) thinks about “the future” the same as someone from a middle-class background and decent education.

Emotions are not even remotely understood, but it’s a good starting point.

This article reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is that we are in the dark ages of understanding the brain. Let me give an example.

At one point in my research in grad school I was very interested in how people read. Not how to teach people how to read, but how reading worked in the brain. An analogy might be wanting to know how an internal combustion engine worked instead of wanting to know how to drive a car.

So I read a lot of reading psychology. I was massively disappointed. I discovered that no one in the field had more than a vague idea of how reading worked. The brain was effectively a black box to them – the input and output was known, but what happened between people’s ears – they didn’t have the foggiest. Lots of theories, no evidence. We are literally sentient beings with brains and we have little idea how our brains work, at all.

I have come to find that pretty much all research into the brain is at this state. We are not much beyond poking physical regions of the brain with fingers and electricity to discover what does what. So I look upon supposed new avenues as total shots in the dark. Again, this is the dark ages.

Ultimately I don’t see any major innovations in this area until we do the very-thinkable building of an artificial brain. THEN we will know how one works – or we won’t, because too much of what a brain does is emergent. Just wedding “emotions” onto a computer isn’t going to do it.

To leap into my field for a moment, rhetoric is largely a study of how decisions are made based not on ironclad logic, but on emotions.  When Mr. Spock says on Star Trek that “it is not logical,” he is mistaken – if he were really telling the truth, which Vulcans are supposed to, he would say, “it is not emotionally satisfying to me at the present moment.” That’s not nearly as quotable, of course, and pointing out that EVERY time Spock says he is being “logical,” he isn’t, would take me all day.

Suffice to say, it’s true we are emotional creatures, but our past influences said emotions and we also make WRONG decisions very often. Frankly, the emotions are not very good at making decisions, especially when the RIGHT answer is not blindingly obvious. Self-persuasion helps, but often turns into rationalization, like Spock and his supposed “logic” when all he really has is certain values.