Nudging Your Worldview

When was the last time you experienced or read something that changed how you view the world? Changed it so much that you took note of it?

How we see and experience the world is a fluid thing, an amalgamation of all the experiences and information and reactions and relationships throughout our lives. While the foundations are laid early on in life, all of us continue to tweak our view of the world, consciously or unconsciously, throughout our lives.

Every now and then something changes your views so clearly, it’s hard not to be conscious of the shift.

I want to talk about one such recent occurrence.

As I’ve previously touched on, it is imperative to understand and control the things that will end up in constructing who you are.

What Shifts Your Worldview

I find there are several activities that help you develop your worldview into a broader, more understanding and nuanced direction. One is travelling and living in different countries. As Alexander von Humboldt has said;

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”

It’s easy to agree with that, just from observing the views of people who have not had a proper, broad exposure to different cultures or a diverse set of people. The unknown can be scary.

Another excellent method of broadening – and extending – one’s horizons is reading. While I find most reading interesting and gain at least some useful knowledge from almost every book I read, the first book I read this year was one of those relatively rare instances that caused some conscious shifts in thinking.

The book in question was “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

A book about emotions may sound boring, or stuff we already know.

However, as it turns out, much of the stuff we “know” about emotions is, well, wrong.

Much of the research ostensibly proving what we knew is wrong, too.

It’s not hard to see this if one looked deep enough into the said research, except once something becomes widely “known” and accepted as truth, questioning it becomes comparable to heresy – even in science, and even if you have solid evidence.

Lisa Barrett is just such a heretic, and does an extraordinary job in methodologically tearing down the established understanding of emotions, backing it up with so much neurological and other research that it leaves little room to hold on to the old model anymore, even if you wouldn’t fully buy into the theory she proposes.

So… What’s New?

There’s obviously a lot more depth and breadth in the book than I can discuss here, but consider just the following:

There is no physical signature or a universal “look” for any emotion, nor are there “fundamental” universal emotions that would be present in everyone or every culture; emotional constructs are highly dependant on culture and even language, among other things.

It’s worth saying that another way: you cannot reliably recognize emotions from any physical measurements, visual or otherwise. It’s all highly variable and context-dependent and furthermore, emotions are not genetically endowed, nor are they generated by some evolutionary construct of a “limbic brain” or other dedicated brain regions.

This alone throws into question an incredible array of not just research but also widely used practices and products already in the market.

In this light, solutions like MIT’s “Emotion Recognition” using Wi-Fi signals suddenly seem to be, to put it kindly, of limited use. As do the supposed “emotion interpretation” capabilities of SoftBank’s Pepper robot. Or Affectiva’s emotion recognition software. And so on.

Barrett argues for a theory of constructed emotion that explains the experience and perception of emotion and resolves the “emotion paradox”:

The emotion paradox is as follows. People have vivid and intense experiences of emotion in day-to-day life: they report seeing emotions like “anger”, “sadness”, and “happiness” in others, and they report experiencing “anger”, “sadness” and so on themselves. Nevertheless, psychophysiological and neuroscientific evidence has failed to yield consistent support for the existence of such discrete categories of experience. Instead, the empirical evidence suggests that what exists in the brain and body is affect, and emotions are constructed by multiple brain networks working in tandem.

I guess it’s needless to say that I highly recommend the book for full context and insight into this. Acknowledging few will actually read it though, here’s a simplified version of what is the theory of constructed emotion:

“In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.

Instances of emotion are constructed throughout the entire brain by multiple brain networks in collaboration. Ingredients going into this construction include interoception, concepts, and social reality. Interoceptive predictions provide information about the state of the body and ultimately produce basic, affective feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, and calmness. Concepts are embodied knowledge (from your culture), including emotion concepts. Social reality provides the collective agreement and language that make the perception of emotion possible among people who share a culture.”

The implications of this go beyond humans.

Although Barrett doesn’t really touch on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, I find the constructive theory also has profound implications for developing artificial general intelligence, especially human-like AGI.

When so much of being human has to do with interoception (essentially, us having a body and the brain being highly connected to the state of the body), and being molded by a large number of other people in a social environment in unique cultural environments over a long time period, it’s questionable whether any of the current pathways towards creating an AGI are viable.

All of this also makes one appreciate the importance of culture and shared social reality, and concerned of the fact that shared social reality is struggling amidst algorithms designed to provide everyone with their own unique version of reality.

Here be dragons.

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