musing


Emotion and Logic 1

I was just about to run off to the grocery store when I was struck by a thought. Grocery shopping on hold until further notice.

The other day one of my friends said something to me that struck a chord. It was a brief comment, but it was along the lines of, “Isn’t it weird that logic holds more weight than emotion in determining whether a decision is ‘valid’ or not?”

So I’ve been stewing over that comment for the last few days, because my gut reaction was: But emotion is ridiculously important in decision-making because it abbreviates the logic!

Part of the reason why I cannot dismiss emotion entirely from the decision-making process is that it’s what governs most of my final choices.  By which I mean I don’t make impulsive, consequence-ignoring decisions (that is the usual type of decision implied by ’emotional decisions’, is it not?), but that I am put into a state of emotional dissonance when challenged for a decision. I then know when the decision is ‘correct’ for me because that dissonance evaporates when I make it. If my state of stress persists past the decision-making, then I know I need to re-evaluate the situation because my conscious mind hasn’t dealt with something my subconscious is concerned about.

My personal makeup requires a reason for pretty much everything, so all my life, I’ve made a habit of trying to parse my emotions. This has two results. The first is that it makes my mild anxiety and depression a little bit super awful since logic need not apply. The second is that I am prone to using my emotions as a bellweather for when I need to roll up my sleeves and and get to the bottom of something. In case it isn’t obvious, I journal. All my thoughts get untangled via writing, and usually when this happens, when I actually grapple with the thing my emotions are flailing about, they sort themselves out.

Because this is how I deal with life in general, I often use the metaphor that emotions are a little black box. Things go in, things come out, and sometimes you can correlate input and output, but other times weird things come out along with nasty blue smoke as the result of an input you though you’d already recorded as producing something else. They’re a complex process, maybe a bit mysterious, but something you can manipulate to a degree if you hit on the right combination of inputs.

All of this–*waves hand toward prior paragraphs*– is sort of the background to the idea that I believe that emotions are the abstract user interface for the mind.

And by abstract, I mean really, very abstract.

As an example of the kind of abstraction I mean, in the Otherland series by Tad Williams, one of the characters has a garden in cyberspace. This garden acts as an abstracting agent for news and events from all over the ‘net. It’s the feed aggregate, the dashboard or hub for every one of his concerns to make their presences known. Except, and this is why the imagery has stuck with me in the however-many years it’s been since I’ve actually read the series, all of the news is represented by physical objects that would otherwise be contained within a garden. I don’t remember what the abstract mappings were in the book, but let’s say the patch of clover represented business concerns. They could be healthy or look kind of wilted to suggest the health of the companies under this guy’s control, or a large bunny could be nibbling on the foliage to suggest the impending hostile takeover that would wreak havoc on his business’s structure. It’s a metaphoric interface, with rain and sunlight and different patches of flora representing different concepts and events. In Otherland, the abstraction of a garden represents raw information made digestible at a glance.

There’s a similar abstraction in Gun, with Occasional Music does, only the information being abstracted is the daily city news. In GWOM, and again I read it a hecka long time ago, one of the images that stuck with me was that in this dsytopic cyber-noir future, nobody is allowed to use actual words to give you the news. Instead, there’s a radio program on that plays music. It’s orchestral, if memory serves, but music nevertheless. The hardboiled detective protagonist of the books listens and waits for the tremolo of suspenseful strings, because that’s his cue that something mysterious and awful has happened and he needs to break out his magnifying glass and investigate.

Instead of ‘digestible at a glance’, the use of music as an abstract plays directly upon the idea that music conveys ideas through evoking feelings & emotions. Music, for most people, is an emotionally evocative medium. Just in classical music alone, you can have music that evokes the feeling of standing on the edge of the sea, of walking down a country path, or of riding on a train. Movies use their scoring to support and enhance the emotional impact of scenes, and so do commercials when they’re trying to evoke an emotion that will allow them to sell you things. There’s angry music and sad music and music designed to pump up your energy so you can rock out on the dance floor. Music is powerful because emotions are powerful, and using music to convey emotion is one of the most efficient ways to condense entire experiences into something that can be passed from one human being to another.

That is: emotion condenses experience.

The emotional output is the result of the little black box has chewing up and spitting out every single thing that your mind has perceived happening to you at any point in time. Emotions are your garden and your orchestra.

And sure, sometimes there is an out-of-tune piccolo player who knows where the bodies are buried that you can’t fire and every time she shows up you cringe, or you plotted your garden on a stretch of rocky ground and you keep finding stones you swore you rooted out already, but emotion is information.  Even if the rogue piccolo is stressing you out and logic isn’t going to force her to hand over the blackmail, emotion is the layer of the human user interface that takes care of the ‘at a glance’ monitoring. If you’re grouchy and grumpy, maybe you’re hangry and need a granola bar. If you’re disquiet in a relationship, there’s probably a reason. And maybe if you’re stressed it’s not just one thing and none of the causes are fixable. I mean, emotion isn’t magic. Sometimes what it’s telling you isn’t exactly super useful.

I think that emotion’s status as the abstract interface is especially powerful in writing. Just like an evocative song, an evocative scene can convey a mass of condensed information and form a connection between writer and reader. This is what’s at the heart of the advice ‘show-don’t-tell’, it’s what advice about building and sustaining tension deals with, and it’s at the very center of adventures and romances and epic quests. I have never squared off against a dragon with a too-heavy sword and a sweat running into my eyes, but I can put together the sensations of it from other condensed experiences and feel that terror for my ownself.

The fun thing about abstract interfaces, though, is that they have a relationship with the thing they’re abstracting. In emotion’s case, it’s abstracting logic. I get really cranky when people insist that there’s a strict divide between logic and emotion, because they’re two necessary parts of a single decision-making system, even if that decision is something as simple as ‘what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?’.

Logic affects emotion and emotion affects logic. There’s a give and take to the system. I can logically step through a problem and feel relief at the solution, and I can write books with a minimum of plot holes so that people buy in and that, in turn, bolsters the emotional impact of my work. On the flip-side, I can also be hit by an emotion out of the blue that signals to me that something interesting is going on inside my head that I might want to take a look at, and I can create mystery in piece of fiction by describing someone experiencing an emotion that has no apparent immediate source. There’s an inextricable relationship between the two processes, even if it sometimes goes haywire.

In computer science, abstraction is often desirable, because it, as the wiki says, ‘suppresses complexity’ for ease of use.  So, say, emotion is abstraction (and desirable) and a readily-interactable interface, then logic is where all the heavy-lifting complexity behind the scenes happens when the mind is calling upon its heuristics. The mind is complex in ways science is still discovering, and the brain does take shortcuts (good google term, btw: ‘brain shortcuts‘), but logic is an if-then-else process that marches from one end to the other. In some ways, logic becomes constrained by it’s own linearity, hence the shortcuts. It needs emotion to help find other bits and pieces inside the mind that could be unrelated to the primary logical thrust, but be equally as important. Emotion networks even unexamined thoughts into the whole in rapid gestalt.

Not that incorporating unexamined notions ever backfires. Or that it always works.

Still, the point of this whole thing is that when I encountered the concept that logic is taken as more ‘valid’ than emotion, I had an immediate, “Wait, no- that’s not what I meant to imply at all!” Emotion and logic are interrelated in a complex fashion, and unless something isn’t functioning properly, to deliberately ignore one in favor of the other is a disservice to one of the primary systems that helps us connect to each other as living, experiencing humans.

Now, I’ve spent more time than I meant to on this and I still need to scoot off and get milk.


Just add cheese…

I’ve been watching the Librarians, though I’m a couple episodes behind at the moment, and I can’t deny that it is one of those deeply silly shows where enjoying it is not so much a suspension of disbelief but an acceptance that you are watching something deliberately over-the-top, into the realm of farce. It’s intensely cheesy, and it’s only redemption is that – for all it’s faults – it has a great deal of heart.

The cheese, though, the over-the-topness and silliness, is one step shy of epic. Or one step beyond epic. In my own writing, attempting scifi and fantasy (especially) has been for me an exercise in learning to hear cheese. How far can you go before it’s just too ridiculous. Where is the line between awesome + funny and that blank stare where the reader/audience/whatever is trying to decide if this was serious or they’re supposed to laugh. And then – as if that wasn’t precise enough – where to take our humor so that they’re laughing with you and not at you.

I often err on the side of safety, so my forays into epic are few and far between and it becomes all the more important that I be able to hear the cheese. A lot of my old writing is a little cheesier than that I really like now, and going back to read it is a little bit like going back and looking at pictures of me as a kid. I didn’t even know how silly I was being, and it’s a little bit charming now, but also something I’m glad to have left behind.

Cheesy dialogue is the worst offender, but then dialogue is always a rough one to deal with.

But, yes – I’m still not sure where exactly the line is, at least not for me. How much can I attempt intensity, attempt ‘epic’ before it all falls apart as ‘trying too hard’?