I’d like to talk to you today about emotion; in particular, what it is and why it is important. And for reasons that I hope will become apparent later, I will start by offering a definition that is inspired by systems theory:
At its essence, emotion is the name we give to a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system’s cognition of its internal state.
Our bodies are a prime example of such a system and it is, of course, with respect to that example that the term ‘emotion’ is usually applied. First and foremost, our brains exist to regulate the body and, as a result, the brain is the body’s captive audience. Emotion is the emergent phenomenon resulting from this regulation, although it’s fair to say that the mechanisms behind the emergence are still hotly disputed. What is no longer in dispute, however, is the important role played by emotion in enabling our decision-making calculus. In fact, it is probably more influential than the conscious cognition of external or environmental states. As part of an adaptive system, the human body’s regulatory processes subconsciously employ heuristics to determine the most appropriate somatic (i.e. internal) state to adopt in response to a change in external states. Moreover, heuristics are used to link internal states to the actions required to judiciously change the external states (e.g. through fight or flight). This can sometimes be a problem because the same internal state can be adopted in response to a variety of external states (indeed, the same states can arise for reasons that have nothing to do with the system’s environment). As a result, not all of the actions subsequently prompted by an internal state may be appropriate for a given externality. This is the basis for many of the problems we experience as a complex, autonomous, self-monitoring system. It explains a lot of our mental health problems, our impulsive and inappropriate behaviours and our maladapted belief systems. How likely this is to be an issue also depends upon the extent to which the individual is sensitised to his or her internal states.
Extending the emotion paradigm
Society is another example of a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system. As such, it also operates in accordance with a decision-making calculus that is (in at least the systems theory sense) as emotional as it is rational. Once an internal state has been adopted, the majority of the societal decision-making will be informed by cognition of the newly established internal state. As a consequence, society can also behave in a manner akin to collective mania, it can be impulsive and it can institutionalise maladapted belief systems. This is the price that any sufficiently complex, self-monitoring system has to pay for its adaptability.
To be clear, I am not saying that societal decision-making is essentially emotional just because the decisions are being made by individuals who are acting emotionally. This may be true, but I am referring to a more profound sense in which society’s decisions are emotionally driven. They are emotional in the sense that the cognition of the internal state of a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system (i.e. society) is the driving force. Cognition of the external state that led to the internal state isn’t even necessarily present; or, if it is, it isn’t the driving force. In fact, efforts to identify an environmental trigger are prone to be rationalisations after the fact.
Seeing society as a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system that embodies a collective decision-making calculus that is analogous to that employed by its individual members opens up new insights. Not only is the basis for society-level decision-making essentially emotional in the systems theory sense, it is also susceptible to the same dysfunctional traits that can be found within the individual. For example, many neurotic conditions and personality disorders have at their root an oversensitivity to somatic signals. Debilitating emotional reactions can be triggered by quite subtle changes to external states in such a way that wholly inappropriate and exaggerated responses are possible. These are phobic reactions that may come to feel rational to the affected individual but they are clearly not. Treatment of such conditions often involves the suppression of the over-monitoring of the internal states that have been allocated undue importance (for example, it is often a self-awareness of a racing heartbeat that may trigger a full blown panic attack). The patient needs help to adopt strategies for breaking the interplay of maladapted emotion and thinking that causes such episodes.
This brings me on to my central idea, which is to say this: Cognition of its internal states facilitates society’s decision-making but it can become problematic once the self-monitoring has become obsessive and whenever the association between internal and external states is potentially ambiguous. As a result, society is currently locked in the throws of a major panic attack, precipitated by a combination of technologically enabled hyper self-monitoring and an ‘emotional’ displacement in which perceived threats to society are largely convenient rationalisations. Society is scared and regretful. But, more to the point, the triggers for this may have nothing to do with the manner in which society seeks to rationalise the problem.
The origins of phoney crisis
Whilst it may be true that both human and societal bodies are complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring systems the two are fundamentally different in their detail. It would be foolish of me to stretch the comparison too far and to start looking for parallels in their structure and internal states. Suffice it to say that the vital signs indicative of somatic states monitored by the central nervous system are quite different to the societal states that have become the obsession of modern society. Nevertheless, general comparisons can be made, such that #bloodpressure and #heartrate can be seen as being replaced by the likes of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. In both instances, indicators of corporeal vitality, alertness and stress are monitored and used to inform decision-making processes. And in both cases, the resulting decisions may or may not be appropriate depending upon whether the implied emotional state (e.g. fear, guilt, etc.) is the one that the occasion demands. That’s the problem with the emotive component of the calculation; it provides enormous adaptive benefits whilst setting the system up for some pretty significant aberrations from time to time.
It strikes me that, courtesy of social media and the wall-to-wall punditry dominating the internet and media, society has become very much obsessed with itself; it has become its own captive audience. This self-monitoring of internal states generates societal ‘feelings’, and society does not currently like how it ‘feels’. However, it doesn’t matter where those ‘feelings’ come from. The only thing that matters is that they exist and they have become a matter of intense societal interest to the point of a potentially neurotic obsession. I have never before experienced the current levels of ‘awareness’ of social issues and accompanying angst. None of this feels like a natural response to an external threat. It feels more like a rising moral panic born of self-obsession. Furthermore, as with any complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system, the cognition of internal states will become a prime motivator for action.
It may very well be that the normal state of society is to operate with a background level of fear towards external threats, coupled with concerns regarding the appropriateness of its past decisions. Such levels of fear and guilt will be the hallmarks of a healthy society. However, I am disinclined to take at face value the justifications given by society for its current levels of fear and guilt. I do not accept that the external threats are the existential ones currently proposed, nor do I accept that all of the decisions that have led to our current levels of guilt are as inappropriate as we are currently maintaining. I believe we have tapped into natural levels of fear and guilt and obsessed over them until they have become anything but natural or healthy. Having established a self-inflicted sense of crisis we have compounded the error by then looking for external threats and causes of internal dysfunction that could possibly explain our extreme agitation. Take, for example, the following tweeted comment:
No one is saying that all men are rapists, but the problem for women is that you can’t tell which ones are. Naturally, therefore, we have to proceed as if they all are. It isn’t rocket science.
No, indeed it isn’t. Try substituting men with Muslims and rapists with terrorists and you’ll see exactly what it is. And yet, the scale of the problem seemed so obvious to the author of the above comment that she believed anyone not recognising it was surely failing to grasp the simplest and most obvious truism. On the contrary, it is actually part of a pattern of social panic, because the comment clearly is feeding off a society-led assumption of endemic toxic masculinity.
So we have a dominating patriarchy, we have toxic masculinity, we have homophobia, transphobia, rampant racism, colonialism shame, a sudden awareness of sexual harassment in the playground, an epidemic of feeling bullied and, above all, a supposed lack of freedom to discuss how mentally unwell this is all making us feel. And in all of the above cases, we are invited to believe that we have not just got some improvements to make, we have actually reached a point of crisis demanding radical change. We are in peril whichever way you look. Things must be really, really bad because every day I read that things are really, really bad.
And Climate Change
It is against this backdrop of a perceived, crisis-level malaise that I think we need to analyse how the climate change issue is sold to the masses. The conventional wisdom is that climate change poses an existential threat that requires urgent and radical action that would be tantamount to the complete reinvention of how we live our lives. However, it is relevant to reflect upon how a society that has already decided that it wishes to redefine the game of life might need an existential threat to justify such a decision. Society will never accept that its concern regarding how we live our lives is the result of an obsessive self-scrutiny, any more than the human mind can readily accept that a racing heartbeat can be self-inflicted rather than indicative of a genuine threat. From society’s perspective, how great it would be if we could identify a problem that transcends, subsumes and explains all that is deemed to be rotten within it. And having identified the great Satan, how great it would be if we could convince ourselves that there is a grand gesture that, no matter how drastic it may seem, can be justified because it would solve all of society’s problems. That seems to me to be the great deal on offer. We have convinced ourselves that society is spiritually sick and in need of salvation, and tackling climate change is sold as an opportunity for deliverance on an appropriate scale. So it is no coincidence that so many people have seen so many connections between issues of social injustice and climate change, since the latter is the eminently auspicious, after-the-fact rationalisation for the former. One has to wonder, if we didn’t obsess so much over the ills of society, what appetite would remain for rebooting it to address climate change.
One can argue whether or not the actions currently proposed for addressing climate change are commensurate with a real threat, but this is not really a question of rationality – it’s just an emotion thing. The internal state now prevails. So, as far as climate change is concerned, the question is not really how to deal with the environment; it is how to deal with the distressed state we now find ourselves in.