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Why emotions cannot be assigned numbers?

  1. Aug 28, 2013 #1
    Okay, this might be a weird question and I am not sure which sub-forum it belongs to - Math, biology or here.

    We have this concept of more or less. Given two quantities, we can see whether they are equal, more or less. So we assign each quantity some number, symbol to address it.

    Similarly with emotions like love, hatred we can say whether somebody love the person more or less compared to other. Although it's subjective, we have this more or less concept for emotions too.
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  3. Aug 28, 2013 #2


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    Numbers are robustly defined, singular, and reduced. Emotions are vaguely defined, degenerate, and emergent.
  4. Aug 28, 2013 #3
    We do, its just that the number assigned is not necessarily an objective number and should be taken with a grain of salt. We have things like pain scales (for pain, obviously), ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) etc. A quick Google search reveals examples of emotional scales. They are efforts to quantify subjective experiences so doing comparisons is not as simple as say, weighing something and saying that it is 1kg.

    As far as I know, these scales are not really based on a standard (such as distance is, for example) and lack precision (you won't see people asking for a rating of 2.344 for example). They do however, aid in therapeutic settings where progress measurement is important. For instance, you can be a 5/10 for pain today and a 3/10 for pain tomorrow and that would indicate to your therapist that you are on the right track. The therapist probably wouldn't tell you that you are 40% better just because of those two numbers.
  5. Aug 28, 2013 #4


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    This is a topic mostly concerning classification of psychological phenomenon so it fits in biology best. The medical sciences sub forum is for topics related to disease/injury, treatments and medical specific research,

    Essentially what Pyth said but ill add that even though we could give a rating to our emotions (e.g 1-10 how much do you love X where 1 is slightly more than liking and 10 is head over the heals obsessed) it would be almost entirely arbitrary and subjective with no utility. A complex opinion or feeling can't be reduced to a simple number.
  6. Aug 28, 2013 #5


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    It is a matter of finding a ruler. No ruler, no value, no comparison.
  7. Aug 28, 2013 #6


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    The Weber-Fechner law for perception is, in the case of perceiving weight, typically based on that the "just noticeable difference between two waits, so that if you can only just distinguish between a 100g and 105g weight, the "just noticable difference" has increased to 10 grams if the lighter weight weighs 200 grams.

    Several other perception-types "sort of" follow such perception laws.
    This has very little to do with quantifying "love" or other emotions, however.
  8. Aug 28, 2013 #7


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    People are irrational as well. For example when asked questions about how happy people were in relationships, 8 months later asked questions about previous answers, if the relationship had changed, 78% of men and 87% of women inaccurately recalled how they used to feel.

    Lots of experiments have been done where there are other factors you can manipulate to change responses but surprisingly in predictable ways which kinda in some ways contradicts other assertions to the original question.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2013
  9. Aug 28, 2013 #8
    Today, a unit of measurement is thought to need the same definition across the world. If the past a foot meant different things in England and France and there are still differences between an American gallon and an English gallon. Another example is the Richter Scale which couldn't accurately rate some earthquakes. It still managed to scale most earthquakes accurately.

    Maybe one of the hurdles preventing the use of scales to measure emotions is the idea that they need to apply to every human being. If one can come up with a unit of measurement for emotions that fit the data for even one person it would be worthwhile and might lead to other useful research.
  10. Aug 28, 2013 #9


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    All of these things can be measured in some form, so can be compared.

    I personally do not believe that emotions can ever be meaningfully measured because the same situation can be experienced with incredible differences between each person.
  11. Aug 28, 2013 #10


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    When you talk about two quantities being seen as equal, more or less and assigning some value to something, I think you must be thinking of objectively observable phenomena such as temperature, density, or the magnitude of an electrical charge for example. We can pick out some objectively observable phenomenon and assign a value to it that's a function of some feature the phenomenon exhibits. Once we measure something we can assign a value to. Then we can all measure it in some similar way and agree to that value.

    The problem with emotions is that they are subjective, not objective properties. Only the person experiencing the emotion can say anything about them. We can objectively observe the person's neurons interacting for example, but we can't assign a value to the experience they are having that we can't measure. Subjective phenomena are like that, they can't be objectively measured. I think that's the fundamental problem.
  12. Aug 28, 2013 #11
    I think emotions and a lot of other experiences could be quantified with more sensitive, non-invasive EEG's.

    Here's an EEG of a man having a deja vu accompanied by illusion of precognition, which is exactly the kind of simple partial seizure I have:


    Seeing this EEG completely explained to me why this experience is so persuasive. While I am having one of these I am convinced I have lived through the moment before and am not at liberty to question it. This EEG shows why: the neural activity is through the roof. The strength of the subjective experience correlates with the strength of the neural activity.

    This EEG required an invasive depth-implanted electrode. I believe if we could get such readings non-invasively everyone's emotions could be read and their strength quantified. We could, conceivably, determine who loves who more, etc.
  13. Aug 28, 2013 #12


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    Deja vu for many people don't have any special feelings involved, they're a just a fleeting sense of something feeling like it's happened before, but may not be emotional at all. The ones I've had were simply, "oh, I could swear I've seen this building before", but there was zero emotion connected to it.

    People that have emotions tied to relationships, for example, cannot be, IMO, quantified, because just as the real relationship had highs and lows, so do the memories. Also, the same memory today can be more or less intense as the same memory another time, depending on your mood and what triggered the memory.
  14. Aug 29, 2013 #13
    The "feeling" of familiarity is the emotion in question. People don't think of familiarity as an emotion that's internally generated. They tend to ascribe familiarity to things in the external world as a property of those things. But it isn't. The phenomena of Deja Vu, Jamais Vu, and Capgras Syndrome, demonstrate that "familiarity" is a subjectively experienced emotion, and not a property inherent in external things. A certain kind of damage to your amygdala and being confronted by something as familiar as your parents won't trigger the least feeling of familiarity in you.

    An EEG of the mild "fleeting" sensation you describe would not look anything like the above posted EEG, I'm sure. Regardless, activity of some intensity would be recorded from your temporal lobes, no mental event happens without neuronal activity, and could be given a place on a scale: quantified.

    The fact the intensity of emotion linked to something specific changes over time wouldn't prevent you from quantifying it at any given time. Any specific emotion could, in principle, be quantified at the time of testing if we could non-invasively sample activity in specific locations in the temporal lobes.

    For a broader picture: your bank account total today is probably not the same it was a week ago. Regardless, money is one of the most eminently quantifiable things we have. There's plenty of math tools for dealing with quantities that change over time. All you need to get started is the ability to quantify a thing at a given time.

    Mostly what I meant by that remark about "who loved who most" though, is that it would be easy, with this tool, to figure out which of two people generally experiences more intense emotions and place your bet on them.
  15. Aug 29, 2013 #14
    So if we find a ruler, say something like brain signals when a person experiences love then can we assign numbers to that emotion?
  16. Aug 29, 2013 #15


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    For one, I doubt emotions are isolated so well and second, because of degeneracy, two different neural systems can result in the same function. So there's going to be a lot of ambiguity between subjects.

    I think a ruler is theoretically possible, but not practically. And you'd have to accept generalizations (though we already do that when classifying things in science).
  17. Aug 29, 2013 #16
    May I state for the record that I believe emotions can and will one day be quantified in terms of equations: they're still all neural impulses albeit quite complex. We just do not in my opinion understand both the brain and mathematics well enough to do it yet. But I realize reducing the lovely emotion of love for example to a raw set of mathematical equations might seem to take away some of the allure of this human phenomenon, and so some may abhor the notion of such.

    I am very optimistic one day after I am gone, we will unlock the secrets of mind and consciousness and construct artificial minds modeled closely to the human brain and these will have phenomena which resemble human emotions like love and hate, and that these artificial emotions will be understood within the context of their construction: the underlying architecture and dynamics. Those dynamics will in turn, be describable by mathematics.
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2013
  18. Aug 29, 2013 #17

    Andy Resnick

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    Psychology does use numerical scales, often by using a Likert scale as a probe. Other numerical scales include IQ, lie scales, anxiety scales, and MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory).
  19. Aug 29, 2013 #18
    Depends on what you mean by this. If you're saying that something like "pure" love, or hate, or fear, never happens in isolation from other emotions, of course I agree. We usually experience a range of several simultaneous emotions. I think, though, that it should eventually be possible to isolate the nuclei that are responsible for any specific one. When you say that two different neural systems can result in the same function, I suspect there's actually a difference between the two functions produced by two different neural systems, however subtle. Analogy: a cello, a viola, and a violin all overlap in the range of pitches they can produce. And, listening to a string quartette I certainly cannot always tell which instrument is producing which pitch. An electronic analyzer performing an ongoing Fourier analysis, though, could probably always distinguish one instrument from the other. If all you had was recordings of quartettes with no knowledge of the different instruments they comprise, the invention of that analyzer would have to precede the knowledge that there were three similar, but not exactly the same, instruments producing the "string" sounds.

    Hopefully that's relevant to what you said, but I might not have correctly caught your drift.

    I think the SQUID represents our first efforts at creating the kind of "ruler" we'd need:


    I have no idea what it would take to move from "inferences" to confident "measurements", but it seems people have been working on this for some decades now.

    Anyway, I think there is rock solid, hard data there, we just can't get to it to measure it. If and when we can, there would still have to be a lot of generalization, as you said. Ultimately, emotion should become at least as quantifiable as, say, a weather system is now.
  20. Aug 29, 2013 #19


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    "When you say that two different neural systems can result in the same function, I suspect there's actually a difference between the two functions produced by two different neural systems, however subtle."

    Subtle differences would be swamped by noise and variation from specimen to specimen, so they would effectively be the same even if the degeneracy weren't perfect.

    However, they're quite literally the same output signal. You can setup a system where the output neuron looks exactly the same for several different underlying networks. If that one neuron is the only point of interface, than any neuron downstream from it won't be able to tell what the underlying network was that produced the output of that neuron. That's where degeneracy lies in neural signaling.

    Of course, you can come up with an emotion system that avoids degeneracy, but it would be speculative. Functionality in neurons is, indeed, degenerate, so if you wanted to base emotions on function (measurable observables) you'd have to justify why emotions aren't degenerate and I'm fairly sure our understanding of the neural correlates of emotions is still quite primitive in this regard.
  21. Aug 29, 2013 #20
    I'm not sure what goal you would set for the quantification of emotion, but my idea was simply that the intensity of emotions could be quantified based on the premise that the intensity of the experience is directly proportional to the intensity of the neuronal activity generating the experience. I don't think degeneracy, as you explain it, needs to be addressed at all for that. It seems to me a simple matter of being able to measure amplitude and frequency of, for example, a specific nucleus in the amygdala that's correlated with a specific emotional experience.
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