Piercello's universal equation

Instincts --> (Sense of Identity <-- Intelligence) = Emotions

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thesis Proposal: Can Emotion Be Defined In Terms Of Instinct and Intelligence? (03/06/10)

Disclaimer - Because this post is basically a thesis proposal, it is often both dense and terse, which is not terribly helpful for someone unacquainted with some of the concepts it brings up. I'll be unpacking terminology, concepts, arguments, and implications much more thoroughly and accessibly in the near future as this blog unfolds, so until then please bear with me. Many of these topics have already been addressed in considerable detail in the books listed in my References/Reading List post, which can therefore be mined for hints.

Finally, if you haven't just arrived from my introductory post What is this Blog?, you might consider starting there, as it will provide a minimal amount of conceptual and organizational framing for what I am attempting to do here.
(and now, the Real Post)

Although emotion is often considered to be a biological drive in its own right, significant and perhaps transformative insights into the fundamental nature of emotion appear when it is reconceptualized as an emergent effect of elegant interactions between the protective functions of instinct and the structural logic of cognition. Accumulated cognitive research suggests that 1) intelligence works in part by using patterns detected in incoming sensory data to make predictions about future inputs and that 2) hierarchical layering and analogy-making combine to stretch those simple predictions into a sophisticated but flexible representational awareness of the world. Given this description, the structural logic of intelligence can be combined at a high level with the presence of instincts to produce the following thesis statement:

"The instincts which evolved to protect the physical body must also act in defense of the sense of identity, an abstract cognitive representation of self assembled by intelligence and extended by analogy, and their autonomous actions to that effect are directly perceived as moods and emotions."

The idea can be more compactly expressed in a short qualitative equation:

Instincts --> (Sense of Identity <-- Intelligence) = Emotions

This general formulation achieves a rare but elegant professional compromise between the physiological and cognitive aspects of emotion, the respective centers of the two uneasily co-dominant camps of emotion research, essentially by positioning these two well-established theoretical planes so that their explanatory strengths interlock rather than oppose. Thanks to the analogical fluidity built into the human concept of self-identity, the visceral, physical nature of emotions can be fully reconciled with the human ability to be emotional at or about things, yielding a remarkably coherent explanation for the richly multi-dimensional variation observed in individual emotional intensity, target, cause, and speed of onset. This newfound theoretical continuity is partially illustrated by the following four examples:

1) Emotional responses that involve already thought out and established aspects of identity strike with instinctive speed, hitting too fast for cognitive warning, but emotional reactions to events that require the cognitive evaluation of identity-related events, such as implications based on the construction of analogies or chains of reasoning, must unfold no faster than the relatively slow speed at which active cognition takes place;

2) Complex emotions can be considered as system-wide instinctive responses to parallel internalized identity roles that are temporarily in conflict, such as "friend" and "competitor" or "career scientist" and "parent," rather than as serially layered emotional responses to a single, monolithic identity. This is possible because the many overlapping models of self-identity are initially constructed by intelligence from the bottom up rather than the top down, following an organizational structure based on local success rather than global coherence, and they are only later integrated as needed;

3) A single stimulus is capable of provoking wildly different emotional reactions from individual to another, even though all humans share the same general instinctive hardwiring and cognitive architecture, because the intensity of an instinctive response is always directly proportional to the relative status of its target identity component within each personal identity constellation, and because identity constructs are subject to endless individual variation in culture, education, environment, and experience;

4) The individuality of emotional reactions is further amplified by the interplay of emotions with moods, which this theory describes as instinctive reactions to energy-budgeting assessments based on the differences between subjective estimates of the energy available and equally subjective estimates of the energy required to reach a desired goal.

Further investigation suggests that the vast internal complexity of human emotional life can be comprehensively mapped as a combined function of just three global factors: 1) a powerful instinctive pressure, probably supplied by several interacting sets of hardwired instinctive drives operating on different time scales; 2) the higher-level coherence problems faced by identity because of its representational origin in the massively parallel, bottom-up, loosely hierarchical organization of intelligence; and 3) the unique analogical ease with which humans extend their emotional domains, effortlessly investing identity in other people, possessions, past and future events, nations, personal roles, and ideological positions. Both logic and experience suggest that it is not necessary for these investments to be internally coherent in order for them to be instinctively defended.

On a more abstract systemic level, the richness of the emotional experience by anything possessing both self-representational cognitive capacity and an accompanying set of hardwired instincts is likely to correlate strongly with the degree of meta-representational prowess provided by the resident intelligence, but the overall character of that emergent emotional experience should be directly traceable to the specific structure of its supporting cognitive and instinctive architecture. This suggests a plausible emotional and evolutionary continuity between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, but it may also raise some interesting implications for Artificial Intelligence researchers.

From a computational perspective, this framework appears likely to allow the mathematical expression of emotion as an emergent consequence of the dynamical interplay between instinct and the structural logic of cognition. If this proposition can be formalized, then the incorporation of appropriate “constants of instinctive force” into various cognitive models might result in the successful modeling of individual emotional effects. In turn, an integrated approach to cognition and emotion may facilitate more effective agent-based modeling of the incompletely rational behavior exhibited by large populations. A rigorous pursuit of the computational underpinnings of cognitive modeling and the mathematics needed to model complex adaptive systems in detail would allow the investigation of the efficacy of this proposal at a much higher level of quantitative resolution.


In addition to its computational possibilities, an integrated view of emotion and cognition creates valuable logical linkages which allow profound philosophical insight into human affairs on many levels, generating what appear to be far-reaching practical applications. You will eventually be able to read more on this aspect of the theory here, once I have collected enough time and information to write the post.


  1. Discussion has been joined over at Grim's place, where he has been kind enough to write a post responding to the thesis statement. I have responded in the comments there, and look forward to the discussion as it unfolds.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. lots in Costa Rica

  3. Nicely explained. It's indeed an art to stop new visitors with your attractive writing style. Truly impressive and nice information. Thanks for sharing thesis proposal writing.