Why Do Humans Have Feelings?

I asked this question today, not in a rhetorical way, literally I wanted the listener to think of an answer. As expected the person I was having this enjoyable conversation with had never thought about it and simply took it for granted that we do. But evolution takes nothing for granted, right? If emotions didn’t serve a purpose we’d see their areas of the brain shrinking over history not growing, we’d see less complex emotions like empathy now than in the past. So there must be a reason humans have feelings. I know most people don’t think about it on that level like a fish doesn’t think about water but I do, I love to. So…

Why don’t computers have emotions? The most powerful computers in the world don’t process a trillionth as much information as the human brain. What makes our brains amazing is it filters out the millions of pieces of information we don’t need when we don’t need it. The amount of information coming in from our senses at all times would be overwhelming without it, as would distinguishing between sense memories and current information, so our brains create short cuts which we interpret as instincts and also compresses meta-data and we get it as emotions. The meta-data of hating your father, being hungry, and being in a noisy room manifests as anger when your boss tells you now isn’t a good time.

I’m talking about why we have them not why they’re important, I actually tend to think they’re not. Or at least overrated. I love the book/movie High Fidelity because the protagonist learns to stop following his emotions -his instincts built by bad relationships- that have sabotaged everything and do what he knows is best for his life in the long term. So many movies have a protagonist who is right all along and then vindicated at the end because audiences eat that shit up, cathartically feel that if they believe in themselves and never waver they’ll come out on top. It’s a common syndrome called being an asshole in real life. When I see a cold calculated villain in a movie I always admire them and think “Damn, they must get so much done in a day.” without all the impractical fears instilled by a world outside our control when we’re young. I also love characters that have no emotions like Data on TNG.  The episode where he builds himself a daughter is one of my all time favourites.

I read once that the subconscious never sends us signals that it doesn’t think are in our best interest. True. It thinks eating every calorie in sight is best because winters were hard on our hunting and gathering ancestors. We don’t let anyone off the hook for being overweight though, we preached self control. But do something stupid and dangerous “for love” or “Fly into a rage” and people pat themselves on the back for it while everyone around nods affirmingly.

I was sitting in a pub with my friends having a blast and accomplishing nothing. I pondered why. Why can it feel good to be around certain people even if it’s not providing any Darwinistic rewards like consuming calories or impregnating someone? It does and I’m glad it does because it keeps me human. I try to be focused and productive all the time. In the studio last week I was internally berating myself for wanting to eat a sandwich because I’d lose half an hour of productivity going and buying it. So I ended up getting sick and feeling like crap. The next day I did let myself have lunch and it saved the day. I was moody and singing awfully then after the walk to Tim Hortons and back and some lunch I felt great and was much more productive. I need to remember that it’s better to invest a few hours in sleep or food and be productive for 8 hours than trying to plow through for 10 hours and ultimately being less effective.

So finding balance between one’s emotional health and pure pragmatic task-oriented problem solving is the question.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Pragmatism

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