Samstag, 17. März 2018

The Typical Cause of Emotion: A Perceived Significant Change

The Subtlety of Emotions, Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, 2001:

>Emotions typically occur when we perceive positive or negative significant changes in our personal situation—or in that of those related to us. A positive or negative significant change is that which significantly interrupts or improves a smoothly flowing situation relevant to our concerns. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention. When no attention is needed, the signaling system can be switched off. We respond to the unusual by paying attention to it. The extraordinary is perceived as significant it does not permit us to shrug it off and walk away. In contrast, the usual is taken for granted, safe, almost invisible. Emotions are generated when we deviate from the level of stimulation we have experienced for long enough to get accustomed to it. The change, rather than the general level, is of emotional significance. Accordingly, loss of satisfaction does not produce a neutral state, but misery; loss of misery does not produce a neutral state either, but happiness. Hence, continued pleasures wear off; continued hardships lose their poignancy.

The importance of personal changes in generating emotions is evident from many everyday phenomena, as well as scientific findings. People are very excited when facing changes in their lives: the birth of a child, marriage, divorce, entering school for the first time, going to an interview that can significantly alter the course of one's life, and so on. Likewise, almost all young children react with an acute emotion of mild fear for several minutes upon encountering a large group of unfamiliar children. A certain kind of change is also required for happiness. This may explain boredom in marriage and the excitement of love affairs. It may also explain why rich people who seem to have everything are not necessarily happy—after a while they get used to having everything, and only changes make them happy.

There is also a considerable amount of evidence indicating that sexual response to a familiar partner is less intense than to a novel partner. Consequently, frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. Decline has also been found in cohabiting heterosexual couples and in gay and lesbian couples. This may be a regrettable fact, but nevertheless it expresses the structure of our emotional system.

Baruch Spinoza most strongly emphasizes the importance of changes in our situation for producing emotions. He claims each individual strives to maintain its existence. When we undergo great change, we pass to a greater or lesser perfection, and these changes are expressed in emotions. As we change for the better, we are happy, and for the worse, unhappy.

The evolutionary rationale for the important role that changes play in emotions is similar: for survival purposes it is crucial that the organism pay special attention to significant changes which may increase or decrease the chance of survival. Being emotional, which is the opposite of being indifferent, forces the organism to pay such special attention. Responding primarily to changes is a highly economical and efficient way of using limited resources. From an evolutionary point of view, it is advantageous for us to focus our attention on changes rather than on stationary stimuli. Changes indicate that our situation is unstable, and awareness of this is important for survival. When we are accustomed to the change, mental activity decreases, as there is no sense in wasting time and energy on something to which we have already adapted. When we are already familiar with certain items, their mere repetition yields no new information and we can ignore them. Indeed, information theory measures the amount of information content by the extent of change brought about by a given operation. A change includes more information than repetition and as such is more exciting. Repetition reduces excitement and may have a relaxing function; no new activity is required, thereby resulting in an absence of consciousness. This is what people mean when they refer to a state of being "on automatic pilot."

Not only emotions but consciousness in general is strongly activated when the organism is confronted with changes. This is true, for example, of sensory sensitivity. Thus, if we were to suffer all our life from a toothache in a way that no change in our environment could alter the ache, then we would be unaware of it so that, in effect, we would have no pain. Without enough variety, the pleasure system tends to become satiated and our awareness decreases accordingly. We get bored when doing the same thing over and over, even if that activity was initially pleasant. Perceptual awareness is also connected with changes. Under normal conditions, we are unaware of air pressure even though it affects us constantly We only perceive it when the level of air pressure changes, as when we take off or land in an airplane. The same applies to the visual system. The lack of relational properties, such as motion and change, results in the disappearance of perception. For instance, when a uniform color fills our field of vision, the color vanishes, to be replaced by a dark gray. Higher systems of consciousness, too, such as focusing attention, come into play when a sudden change takes place in our circumstances. We can drive a car without paying particular attention to the sidewalk; however, if a child playing with a ball on the sidewalk should suddenly come into view, we take notice. The sort of consciousness connected with thinking is also activated when the agent is confronted with new problems. 

This decrease in awareness may be viewed as constituting a process of adaptation. In this process, which expresses the system's return to its homeostatic state, the threshold of awareness keeps rising as long as stimulus intensity remains constant, so that the organism increasingly withdraws its consciousness from more and more events. This is how our awareness decreases when we are driving along a uniform stretch of road. The opposite process is facilitation, when the threshold of awareness diminishes and consciousness focuses on an increasing number of events. This occurs when new stimuli are encountered.

The importance of changes to consciousness in general and emotions in particular may be connected to our learning system, which must have a protective schema to prevent it from becoming trapped into endlessly repeating the same activity.

An important difference between the changes associated with consciousness in general and those associated with emotions is that emotional changes are of highly personal significance. Our attention may be directed to any type of change, but in order for the change to generate emotions, it must be perceived as having significant implications for us or those related to us. The mere presence of change does not guarantee the generation of emotions. An emotional change is always related to a certain personal frame of reference against which its significance is evaluated. For example, when a certain team wins the championship for the first time, this change generates intense emotions in the team's fans, who consider the change as significant, while other people, who do not perceive the change as important, are left feeling completely indifferent. We feel no emotion in response to change which we perceive as unimportant or unrelated; we simply do not care. Emotions arise only when we care. They express our attitude toward unstable significant objects which are somehow related to us.

The change relevant to the generation of emotions is a perceived change whose significance is determined by us. A significant emotional change may involve perception of changes that have actually taken place, or imagined changes. Although the perceived change may be considered as more objective than the imagined change, it is also essentially a subjective change. It is the subject who perceives the change and accordingly considers it more or less significant. A distinction can be made between the (objective) size of the change and its (subjective) significance. We construct a psychological reality in which despite the apparent great "objective" weight of some changes, they may not be emotionally significant and hence are perceived as smaller. Moreover, changes associated with emotions may not merely refer to the subject, but also to those constituting the subject's environment. Again, it is the subject who determines which people belong to this environment. The subject not only determines the significance of the change but also its scope.

The significance of the change is determined by factors associated with the event's impact, for example, the event's strength, reality, and relevance, and factors related to the subject's background circumstances, for instance, controllability of the eliciting event, readiness for such an event, and deservingness of it. ... It can be noted that since these factors can be expressed to different degrees, there are no clear-cut boundaries between significant and insignificant events, but there are various degrees of significance. Below a certain degree of perceived significance, the event does not generate an emotional reaction; above a different degree, our reaction will clearly be emotional; in between, the classification is not clear.

So far I have discussed specific changes which generate everyday emotions. In addition to these changes, our affective reactions are related to a more profound type of change connected with our contingent existence. Our possible death is always in the background of our existence: it reminds us of our profound vulnerability. This type of change expresses our profound vulnerability and dependence on external factors which we do not control. Certain affective disorders, in particular anxiety and depression, are often related to such existential issues. Emotions themselves are typically concerned with more specific issues; the profound existential issues function as an important background framework influencing our specific emotional reactions. These differences are expressed, for instance, in the difference between the emotion of fear and the more general affective attitude of anguish.

Our ability to face the two types of changes constitutes human sensitivity. Those believing their well-being to be immune to such changes may not be as emotional on an everyday basis. For example, people believing in life after death will probably be less sensitive to death and usually also to specific everyday changes, as they attach less significance to them. Those accepting the inevitability of death are also less sensitive than those dwelling on death or other fundamental existential issues. It is interesting to note that there is an alteration in the emotional sensitivity of people who are faced with a severe threat, a loss, or the prospect of death. Victimizing events often prompt people to reorder their priorities, giving low value to such mundane concerns as housework, petty quarrels, or involvement in other people's trivial problems, and high priority to relationships with relatives, personal projects, or just enjoying life. The latter begin to be perceived as the essence of life.

Emotions may be viewed not merely as an expression of our profound vulnerability but also as a way to cope with it. By attaching significance to specific, local changes in our current situation, we ignore, in a way, the more profound type of change underlying our vulnerability; this is a type of self-deception. A certain measure of such self-deception is highly advantageous from an evolutionary point of view, as it enables us to protect our positive self-image and mobilize the required resources for facing daily changes. We deal with such changes as if our profound vulnerability is insignificant. This may seemingly reduce our vulnerability, but it does not significantly change it. The ninety-year-old woman who is enthusiastically studying for her graduate degree in history is enriching her life in a way that seems to reduce the vulnerability of her age, but her basic vulnerability, expressed in the nearness of death, remains unchanged. She is studying as if her near death is a factor which should hardly be considered. Indeed, the fact that in the long run all of us will die does not imply that in the short run we should attach no significance to specific changes. Similarly, a person who is dying from cancer, but is still careful not to waste electricity and goes around the house turning off lights, is behaving as "business as usual," and as if his death is not imminent. This is in accordance with Spinoza's claim that "a free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death." 

Evaluating changes may be done from different perspectives. When looking at the profound change associated with our very existence, namely, death, we may negatively evaluate such a change. In this sense, we normally strive, as Spinoza contends, to persevere in our being. However, specific everyday changes are typically not concerned with profound issues such as the termination of our life, but rather with the personal significance of specific events in our life. From this perspective changes are essential to an exciting and meaningful life. Concerning specific changes, I would disagree with the saying, "Only a wet baby likes change"; rather, I would agree with the saying, "If our days were all alike, then we would have little need to live more than one of them."

The role that changes play in the generation of emotions indicates the dynamic and complex nature of our emotional life. A change is not any event; it is an event which is measured against a complex personal and dynamic framework. The analysis of emotions must take into account this comparative nature.<

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