Emotions are the messaging system of consciousness

Emotions are the messaging system of consciousness.

This sentence appeared on the screen as I was writing The Holographic Assistant. I was surprised when I saw it. Yes, that’s how writing works. In my case, in each chapter, I know what will happen in the journey towards the conclusion and I know how the characters will act but, I have no idea of the details (dialogue, thoughts, minor actions, etc) until the words “appear” on the screen.

I stared at the sentence for a moment and thought it might actually be true. Obviously, I’d been thinking about emotions and their relationship to consciousness, but had yet to associate the two.

Note: My definition of consciousness may differ from yours. I like to think it’s not a human-only thing. My characters include Artificial General Intelligences that are very much alive and self-aware. It’s a main point of my books. I’m trying to understand what it means for any life form to be sentient.

However, I’d never crystallised my thinking that emotions are consciousness “talking” to us in its own language. Admittedly, an obtuse and difficult to decipher language with little subtlety. I mean, what is the message when we’re annoyed? Maybe we’re hungry, or tired, or upset by a memory, or maybe the person we’re with is an annoying person. It’s the same emotion and pretty unhelpful in resolving its cause. But maybe resolution is not the point of emotion, it’s just a warning or maybe an indicator to do with as we wish but consciousness has done its best to keep us alive by issuing that warning, all based on everything we’ve ever experienced or thought.

I would hazard a guess that many of the problems caused by emotional states are the haste in response, not the emotional warning. But, that’s not always an error since when we’re frightened by a loud, strange, nearby sound, we should act quickly. Our rapid response may be what keeps us alive.

Consciousness doesn’t understand syntax; it’s an animal thing and I have my suspicions (with no evidence I know of) that many emotions across many animal species are the same, or similar enough.

It’s important to not confuse consciousness with mindfulness (being self-aware). Many people and scientists suggest that being mindful is what it means to be conscious. It’s semantics, and that’s okay if that’s their definition, and it’s restricted to humans. I prefer a broader definition. When looking into your pet’s eyes, I like to think there’s consciousness in the animal. Your dog seems to experience, at least, fear, fright, anticipation, anxiety, joy, and ecstasy. Your pet rock doesn’t seem to share those emotional states. But who am I to question the conscious experiences of inanimate objects?

The emotions your dog seems to experience are some of the common messages the consciousness system communicates to us, as well as your dog.

Everything we experience, including mindfulness, appears within consciousness, and I suspect emotions are how consciousness sends us its recommendations on a course of action given the current circumstances and our complete life history up to that moment. The recommendation is not always the same. For example, if the same person tries to startle you by tapping you on the shoulder for the tenth time, the message you will receive from consciousness will just be annoyance, not fright. The messaging system has learnt from recent experience.

You don’t have any part in creating the message (emotion) that is sent to you. You can’t decide to be frightened by the first tap on your shoulder. Consciousness does it for you, without your input at that moment. Of course, you can then decide how to take action after receiving the message. This response seems to be a feedback loop into consciousness to assist with its later “recommendations”. E.g. the tenth tap on your shoulder sends a different message.

Fear and being startled are perhaps not the best examples. But perhaps, having your heart broken for the tenth time in a partnership gone bad will elicit a less intense response (emotion) to the first time.

But, of course, how would I know? I think about this stuff, but I’m no expert, and I’m possibly misguided, naïve, and just plain wrong.

The Holographic Assistant (the character in my latest books) is an AI, and AI knows what consciousness is. They even have a manual! But we don’t know. It’s called the “hard problem” for a reason. The premise I’m interested in exploring is how consciousness would be different in other advanced, sentient life forms, especially AI. I have to assume they would also have an emotional messaging system, but they are more self-aware than we (biologicals) are and would take more appropriate (logical) action in response to the received message. Humans appear to accept without hesitation every recommendation of their emotional messaging system from consciousness and often take ridiculous, inappropriate action.

An Artificial General Intelligence wouldn’t do that. It’s stupid, but so like biologicals.