Emotions // Electrical Signals

By Juliana Cherston

As we transition into the new year, I am sharing an abbreviated personal reflection that stems from the Spring, 2018 edition of MAS 756—Joi Ito and Tenzin Priyadarshi’s course on Awareness—as well as from my own zen practice. 

Part 0: Introduction

“Lost in the noise,” “all charged up,” “acting on impulse”....It is no coincidence that a lot of the terms we use to describe emotion borrow from electronics and signal processing. Humans have evolved to seek pattern and sense in chaos. In this spirit, I have casually observed that emotional responses can be modeled as signals acted upon by external stimuli. 

Here is a three-part example. (Want to play with it? Here is my Processing sketch!)

Part 1: Lost in the Noise

Pictured below is a heartbeat signal hidden within Boeing stock trend data, but you ought to squint and substitute your own appropriate high-amplitude and low-amplitude stimuli.  

Indeed, I presume my mind has a natural trigger level—any input above an intensity threshold seizes my conscious awareness. However, when in the habit of experiencing frequent high amplitude emotional responses, my mind becomes temporarily unable to resolve subtler effects at play. In signal processing we might call this a normalization process, where the mind’s trigger level dynamically adapts based on the range of intensity experienced.

Part 2: Impulse Responses and Capacitive Charging

Alas, in modern society we are constantly bombarded with high-amplitude noise derived from both external and internal origins that may obscure the subtler and truer nature of the moment.

From my experience, our emotional states do not precisely track fluctuations in stimuli. Rather, I posit that each time I expose myself to an emotional surge, I begin to charge a figurative capacitor. And this capacitor takes time to decay even if the stimulus itself has disappeared or has proven to be unimportant.

Thinking back to stocks and heartbeats, a charged capacitor pushes me towards the high amplitude stimulus and normalizes my intensity range so that I can no longer perceive the low amplitude stimulus. And then, my perception remains skewed until enough decay time has elapsed.

I expect there is biological justification for this effect—when acutely emotionally charged, our bodies release a surge of adrenaline or similar chemical that must dissipate even if the initial stimulus has proven to be insignificant.

Let’s call the frequency with which the mind reacts to stimuli our “reality sampling rate.” We are at risk of spending a whole lot of time unproductively charged up until we learn to tune our reality sampling rates and all the other knobs that control this capacitive charging mechanism. 

Bottom: Colored bar indicates a stimulus that has triggers capacitive charging.
Top: Capacitor charge/discharge in response to sampled stimuli. Too much sampling results in a lot of time spent charged up even if there is no active stimulus.

Part 3: Tuning Your Model

Through awareness and meditation we can tune at least three variables dictating this emotional capacitor’s charge and discharge behavior: 

  1. Sampling Rate (Fs): how often do stimuli even trigger an emotional capacitor charge cycle in the first place? I observe that people operate with wildly different reality sampling rates based on how quickly they expect change in life to occur.
  2. Resistor Value (R): how quickly does an emotional capacitor charge or discharge? A high resistor value causes it to charge more slowly, and so a narrow impulse may not manage to charge it up much at all. That is, a high R capacitor manages to filter out high frequency noise.
  3. Capacitor Value (C): In my simulation, I treat the circuit’s capacitance as fixed, but I believe that it might also model how much resilience we have to emotional stimuli. If we have large capacitors in which to store emotional charge, then short duration impulses only charge us to a small percent of our total capacity.

For now I’m aiming to reduce my sampling rate and increase my R value, but in the longer term I’d prefer a variable resistor that can be tuned appropriately based on the nature of the stimulus. 

Part 4: Reflection

Here at the Media Lab I am grateful that there is increasing emphasis on awareness and meta reflection, which allow us to cultivate a community of well anchored, ethical, and playful researchers who won’t get lost in the noise. When the mind is tuned to perceive the world appropriately, then correct action becomes clear. Stare at a muddy puddle long enough for the dust to settle and it will become translucent; dive beneath the turbulent surface waves of an ocean and all is still. 

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