Day 041 - Emotional transference of goals and values

Submitted by Sam on 1 July, 2011 - 00:55

In order for a system to be able to have goals, it must be able to make value judgements. Genetic inheritance can account for some extremely primitive judgements about what is good for the organism and what is bad, but most such distinctions have to be learned. For highly complex organisms in highly dynamical environments, it becomes evolutionary advantageous (and then necessary) to parse experience into transferable wisdom to allow useful goals and values to be transmitted from organism to organism without the need for each individual in each generation to invent them themselves through first-hand experience. Accordingly, in human society, we have established various forms of cultural knowledge, traditions and heritages which can be passed on from one group to another in a variety of forms. The easiest way to encode this information now is to use language, but there are more basic, “general-purpose” mechanisms whereby higher-organisms can transfer things like values and goals between each other. Perhaps the expression of recognizable emotions is one of the most effective ways of transmitting ready-made brain-states from one organism to another.

If we learn to associate the visual input of a tiger with the emotion “fear” (perhaps by first learning how “fear” expresses itself through the body-language and facial expressions of peers, and then observing these indications expressed when they also see the tiger), then we can rapidly activate all the agents in our brain associated with “fear” ourselves, thereby bypassing the learn-by-first-hand-experience mode of knowledge acquisition and instantly activating the same groups of agents in our brain that have proven evolutionarily advantageous to be activated in similar situations.

In this way, emotions might be seen to suppress certain features of normal thinking, and activating specific thought-processes associated with each particular emotion. By having a common emotional heritage (reflecting a common neural architecture), we can reliably learn which stimuli should trigger (sub-consciously perhaps) the group of agents associated with emotions such as love and fear, dread and happiness, by seeing when they are expressed by others.

The elemental distinctions of pain and pleasure constitute the primary drivers of emotion, functioning respectively to suppress all but one goal – remove the pain and maintain the pleasurable state. Emotions are complexes of pleasure and pain, leading to aggregates like “anger” which can perform a number of inhibitory and excitatory roles, such as disabling slower brain processes, most long-range goals and plans, high-level reasoning, but activating fast-reacting processes and special gestures and expressions.

Animals which can express and 'read' emotions gain an ability to turn on specific tailored ways of thinking when confronted with new problems, activating and suppressing agents in an evolutionarily optimized fashion.

Minsky touches on some of these implications of emotions in his rather sprawling talk at MIT in September 2007, below.

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