Consciousness and Emotions

Consciousness and Emotions

I would describe my decision making process as thus: Make the best logical decision without regard to emotions. In many ways I idolize the Vulcans from classic Star Trek and how they built a society based on logic with little weight put on emotions. I agree with this because emotions are ephemeral and fickle. A drastic decision when you are in the middle of a bad day can make the day worse, or create further problems down the road. Decisions made only for immediate pleasure can be the most disastrous and deadly. Even though I still hold these values in my life, I also acknowledge consciousness is likely a lie. We do not have free will. And how we make decisions is inextricably linked to our emotions.

My goal in life is to always make the best decisions, emotions be damned. However, at a deep level, I am wrong. But that does not mean the opposite, that one should ignore logic and live their life based only on emotions, is any more true. We have to shift our perspective further away to see what is really happening. Consciousness as we understand it does not exist, and what we do have is a process governed entirely by emotions. When it comes to our life decisions we do not have a choice.

Programming Consciousness

I’ve been programming computers for decades. I have extensive knowledge of how programming works. I understand how code is compiled into a series of instructions that go to the CPU. The CPU performs the commands in a fixed predictable manner. It copies data to and from registers, it does mathematical operations, and it evaluates expressions. That’s it. There never has been, and there never will be, a programming subroutine ActivateConsciousness().

Even though, It would be possible to program a human mind, or copy a human mind into a computer which can emulate the brain. Even though this hasn’t happened yet it should be intuitively possible if we break down human thought into collecting data, analyzing, and executing subroutines. What I’m trying to say is there isn’t anything more advanced that humans can do that computers can’t. The only difference is in the scale and process. I am not talking about fixed current technology. There are many things the human mind can do that the latest AMD processor cannot, but when we break it down into what the mind can do and what we coulddesign a computer to do, they are the same.

I can predict the obvious retort to claiming that humans and machines can operate the same. Is there something that the human mind can do that artificial computers cannot? What is it? To which the obvious response is: have emotions.

Emotions – The Survival Instinct

Emotions are the crux of the human argument. They are also predictable. Emotions are an evolutionary advantage that gives humans basically a 6th sense. Emotions are not random or universally ordained. We can break them down into how they help humans survive and reproduce. Emotions that are “good” happen when we are doing something that historically has lead to a better chance of surviving and reproducing. “Bad” emotions happen when we are in a situation that doesn’t have as good odds.

For example eating a delicious meal gives good emotions. I would even correlate how taste has evolved to give us “good” and “bad” tastes to help us eat food that promotes survival. So to does emotion create good and bad to help us stick to the good and avoid the bad. But emotion is a more centralized sense that takes information from the existing 5 senses to form a new sense.

We can match emotions to programming simply

if (situation_leads_to_survival_in_the_past(senses))

This is an oversimplification for sure, but you see how we can break everything down into this sort of process, even divide the types of emotions based on different goals. Feeling embarrassed when you are awkward around people is a bad procreation-based emotion because it leads to a less optimal reproduction outcome (people are less likely to mate with socially awkward people). Feeling hungry is a bad survival-based emotion because not eating often leads to death, a poor living outcome.

Emotions are, at their root, there to help us survive. They give us the context that drives what we do. That they can be complex doesn’t change their simple goal: keep us alive and multiplying. It’s the same way that humans can taste a nearly endless spectrum of flavors, but in the end it’s only there so that we can eat healthy foods and avoid harmful ones.

But taste can lead us astray. Our tastes were evolved in a world that didn’t have an abundance of fat and sugar. It was a world of feast and famine, not our current unending feast. Our craving of things like donuts and cookies leads to poor survival outcomes with diabetes and heart failure. Unfortunately our tastes haven’t caught up with this new world.

In the same way emotions can lead us astray. We are no longer in a world where tribalism is necessary for survival. There are plenty of resources for everyone, and homicide is incredibly unlikely, especially when compared to diabetes and heart attacks. But we still have these same emotions that makes us suspicious and hateful of the “other”; And incredibly greedy and protective of our own. I consider this predicament where we are still reenacting the fight for our survival on the savanna millenniums ago as the best evidence that consciousness, if it exists, is a far less powerful force than we realize.

Emotions are Consciousness

Which brings us to the core of the problem with consciousness. We conflate emotions with consciousness. Scientific studies show that decisions are primarily influenced by emotions. Brain scans while people are deciding choices show that the choice that triggers the largest good emotion is the one that is picked, even before the person finally “decides”. You can even see this in your daily life if you have enough self awareness. The choice that emotionally feels the best is always the one you pick. You’re not thinking or deciding anything, you’re gauging what your emotions are telling you.

Let’s say you pass the marshmallow test. You can wait 10 minutes to get two marshmallows instead of getting one right now. Again, this is an emotional decision not a logical one. Getting TWO marshmallows feels better than getting one, your emotions can adjust for the time difference knowing that soon the future will be now. My life, and early retirement is an extreme form of the marshmallow test, and I can tell you that it was emotions that drove my frugality, not logic.

When I was still working, I had bad emotions whenever I bought anything expensive or optional. That emotion came from knowing I would have to work at a job longer to pay for it. And I had very negative emotions about working. If I got positive emotions every time I bought a new car or a new computer I would not have been able to retire in my 20s since I would always be wasting money on new things. In fact, I felt so bad about buy my current car new that I know absolutely that I will never ever be able to buy a new car again. From this position I rationalize that buying used cars are a better deal and “smarter” when the truth is that buying new things just makes me feel terrible and I’d rationalize anything to explain why I don’t do it.

You don’t change your mind about things, you change your emotions. Have you ever noticed people never change their mind about their beliefs even when shown clear logical evidence? Yet people will change instantly if they have a bad experience? Think of how many people right now refused to think the coronavirus was a serious threat, but have since made an 180 after someone they knew died. People are driven by their emotions. It’s always been that way. In a static world of hunters and gatherers that sort of adaptation would have been useful. Today those some emotions can destroy our lives if left rampant.

I’m showing my emotions here. I enjoy feeling like I’m above emotions, that they are unnecessary. Feeling like I’m in control of my emotions makes me feel, well, good. The truth is emotions aren’t good or bad, and they help us a lot more than they hurt us. Without emotions, the human race would perish quickly. There wouldn’t be any reason to live, to eat, to procreate. Without emotions our “consciousness” wouldn’t step in and save us.

What is Consciousness?

Asking what is consciousness is akin to asking what is god. We think it makes us different from every other animal but we don’t really know what it is. When I am deciding what to write on this line I am allegedly using consciousness to write it. I am aware of the words I am using and what they mean. If I put my words in a specific order they create thoughts and ideas that can be transferred to other people. The question I pose is whether consciousness is driving actions or subconscious(emotionally driven) actions are driving consciousness. I suspect it is the latter.

My theory is that consciousness is the result of a detailed simulation of the world constructed by the brain. It is a simulation because raw data from our senses is not visible to our consciousness. Eyesight, for example, is an interpretation of electromagnetic waves, of which the vast majority of the electromagnetic spectrum is not represented. We don’t see waves of 500nm hitting our eyes, we see a toaster. Even these interpretations are manipulated to make more sense. Our eyes see in 2d, yet the brain makes us think that it’s 3d. Some brain teaser images can look like a candlestick or two faces in profile. The brain is doing all this manipulation to give us information that helps us survive, not accurate information. All this data the brain collects through senses go into the simulation, even ourselves and our own actions are within the simulation. And consciousness IS the simulation. To render an object inside our simulation is to be aware of it. The rules of gravity, momentum, force, etc are all calculated within our simulation. That’s how we are able to throw a ball from one person to another. We are doing actions inside the simulation which trigger actions and observations on the real world to verify if the actions are working.

To go back to computer programming, this would mean we could program consciousness. We do this by creating a semi-accurate representation of the outside world within computer modeling. Once the internal simulation was accurate enough, an AI could make predictions and run through possible simulations in how to accomplish a goal. An AI tasked with picking up a ball could render the ball and itself and surrounding objects within its internal simulation. From there it could use memory of past actions that succeeded (or got close) in picking up the ball and use permutations to calculate how to pick up the ball in this situation. Once the model is able to pick up the ball in simulation, the AI knows how to manipulate its servos to pick up the ball in real life. This is how you can create an Artificial Intelligence that is cable of learning and executing new behaviors. In other words, it would be “conscious”. Throw in some emotion variables and conditions that create favorable and unfavorable emotions and you’ll be on the way to creating a full human.

But Behavior Can Change

This isn’t a complete view of consciousness, there is another significant way that we really do have a “free-will” style of consciousness that people like to imagine they have. That comes from the ability for the brain to reprogram itself. And it’s difficult to do, especially for adults. And yes, this behavior-changing capabilities is also run by emotions. We don’t change ourselves from doing something if it reliably feels good. We change ourselves when our innate behavior reliably leads to bad outcomes. For example, someone with anger issues may through self reflection realize that their anger always makes situations worse, that it pushes people away, and makes success harder to achieve. With that information a person could attempt to reprogram their brain to redirect anger impulses.

To reprogram the brain one first has to be aware of the behavior as being a problem. Most people don’t get to this first step. Then use that awareness to detect when the bad behavior is imminent and then intervene to change the behavior. After intervening enough times the new behavior becomes second nature.

Self awareness is sort of like another cognitive layer on top of our conscious simulations. It’s a sort of separate analysis of what consciousness is doing, what is it accomplishing. It’s also like a muscle where the more you use it, the more effective it is.

Through self awareness we are able to change our behavior. Instead of eating donuts and cookies ever day (because they taste the best), we can eat a variety of food which is better for our long term survival. Only through self awareness and reprogramming our brains are we able to break addictions. Only with a strong awareness can we break the incorrect behaviors of our ancestral evolution and become our best selves in this modern world.


Integrating this information into my life means I should change how I presented my decision making process at the beginning. Emotion is the way we see the world so there is no reason hide from it. I can strive to use my self awareness to adjust my behavior to generate the best positive emotions in myself and others in the world. I will use this awareness to identify ways that I can change myself to increase positive emotions, and find behaviors I should remove that only result in negative outcomes.

For the most part, our consciousness and our lives keep going automatically. We need only keep awareness. And that, unfortunately, is incredibly difficult for humans to do. Yet, it is possible, if we try. The greatest challenge we face is not the battle we wage with the world, but the one we fight within ourselves.