Emotion: The Animal OS

If you want to be comfortable working in software, you need to feel very comfortable with ideas like memory, the filesystem, and running commands. Everything in software will feel much more solid and understandable once you understand these basic, operating-system level concepts.  “I double-click this icon and a program starts” is nowhere near as useful as “I tell the operating system to begin running the binary code stored in this executable file.”

Once you understand what’s really going on in a system, you can start to ignore the surface level elements. Icons, buttons, and windows are merely decorations on top of the real, “under the hood” behavior.   Everything real that is happening in the computer can be described in terms of memory, processes and files.

Likewise,  If you want to understand and interact with human beings, you need to be as comfortable with feelings as you are with filesystems.  You can get by OK listening to the things people say and interpreting them literally, but you’ll often be confused and feel like something important is missing.

Emotion is the operating system that runs on animal computers, such as human beings.   If you want to be good at interacting with human beings – yourself, or other people – you need to have a good ability to debug a human being by understanding what they are feeling, and what stories they are telling themselves. You can interact with people without considering their feelings, but you’ll be missing way more than someone who interacts with a computer but doesn’t know what files or processes are.

At a high level, the human computational architecture looks vaguely like that of a modern computer:

In a digital computer, information flows in separate Processes interact with each other, and the outside world, through an Operating System.  In a human computer, separate stories interact with each other, and the outside world, by means of emotion.   

The last post talked about stories, and argued that stories shape our way of seeing the world.   This post will build on that concept. If you haven’t read the last post, and you aren’t familiar with ideas such as ‘predictive processing’, or the idea that what you believe heavily shapes what you observe, you need to go back and read that post.

Emotion and Stories

To summarize the last post, think of a stories as being pieces of software running in your brain. Each story generates predictions about what your sensory inputs will be like. The story gets strengthened when your sensory experiences confirm its expectations. The story gets weakened when new evidence contradicts its expectations. You can think of strengthening and weakening as being like priority on a processor. Strong stories – those that have often been validated by your experience – get lots of processor cycles. Weak stories – those that have only occasionally been validated by your experience – get fewer processor cycles.

The stories we tell ourselves shape, and are shaped by, our emotional states. They have incredible impact over what we pay attention to, and how we act. The best way to change your life is to change the stories you tell yourself. These changes will, in turn, affect what you pay attention to, how you feel, and thus how you act.   If you take nothing else from this blog, take the idea that changing the stories you tell yourself about yourself is how you change yourself. Your life could be dramatically better than it is, if you aren’t already engaged in the process of modifying the stories you tell yourself, to improve your life.

Causality Requires Emotion

In a digital computer, input data flows from the outside world, to an operating system, where it is delivered to running processes via an interrupt, or else retrieved by a running process as the result of syscall. In case you are not familiar, a syscall (or system call) is a special function that any process can call in order to hook into the operating system.  

A program without access to syscalls cannot do anything, other than manipulate variables in memory, which are then forgotten as soon as the program ends.  If a process is going to impact the outside world at all, it needs to make a syscall. Even printing a character to the console requires a syscall. So does storing information to the disk.

Likewise, in the human architecture, a story without any emotional hooks does nothing other than move symbols around in a person’s mind.  If a story is going to impact the world outside of a human’s head, the story needs to have an emotional hook, which causes the human to act in some way, even if this action is nothing other than “tell other people this story.’  

Stories that don’t make the listener feel meaning, or purpose, or laugh or cry or think really hard – those stories don’t spread. They are like a process that only modifies variables in local memory, and never writes to disk or stdout.   Stories that don’t inspire emotion don’t have causal impact.

I am trying to keep these posts simple, so that’s all for now. Life gets in the way of me writing as often as I’d like, so I’ll err on the side of keeping these posts coming, rather than making them longer. I have the impression that people prefer shorter posts, anyhow. In the future I’ll write more about models you can use to simplify thinking about emotion, while still getting decent results.

I also plan to write more about concerns other than social skills. One of my goals for this blog is to explore the ramifications of the fact that human computers are networked together in a giant distributed system. I’ll be talking about money, politics, and religion, all as if they were different pieces of software, because I think they are. Stay tuned!

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