The Feel-Good Switch: The Radical Future of Emotion

For most of the last century, the study of emotions was not considered serious science. The problem was subjectivity. Science is objective, rigorously objective. Emotions, though, are internal states, so the only way to study them is through subjective inference (essentially asking people to report how they feel). But — because people lie, because we often misinterpret our emotions and because comparisons between subjects, that is the depth of my anger versus your anger, is impossible to measure—there’s no objective data to be found.

Thus, until recently, the topic was taboo

Change came in the late 1990s, when neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (now at Washington State) discovered the precise neuron-to-neuron trail of the seven primary emotions in all mammals—meaning, in one fell swoop, he answered the longstanding question of do animals have feelings (yes) and turned affective (meaning the study of emotions) neuroscience into a real field.

That field has since blown up. This explosion is following a couple of important trajectories. First, there’s a technological revolution that is allowing machines to read and interpret human emotion like never before.

A couple months back, for example, I wrote about Ellie—the world’s first AI-psychologist. Developed for DARPA by researchers at USC—in an attempt to detect depression and decrease the catastrophic rate of soldier suicide—Ellie uses a combination of microphones, video cameras and a modified Xbox Kinect movement sensor to read 60 different physical signals a second (everything from vocal tone to micro-facial expressions to postural changes) and then uses these signals to decode emotion.

Along similar lines, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote a great piece for the New Yorker about Affectiva, an affective computing company that is making incredible progress in this same area. In many cases, like judging the nuanced meaning behind a smile, their algorithms can now read human emotion better than humans can.

These developments have researchers talking about what’s called the Emotional Economy, the next huge wave in techno-economic development and the follow up to today’s Information Economy.

What is the Emotion Economy? Well, for starters, think about the forthcoming Internet of Things (IoT)—a giant mesh network connecting all of our devices. Now think about what happens if this network understands emotions.

Say you’re driving home from work. You’re tired because it’s been a long day. You’re also anxious because you have a ton of stuff due by the following morning. Well, as both your car and your phone will soon be able to read and interpret emotional and biological signals, as you’re driving home, these devices will detect your mood and fire up the coffee pot. Thus, by the time you’re back home, there’s a cup of magic black liquid waiting for you.

And this is a pretty tame example. For something a little more disruptive, imagine you’re on a Skype call with a potential new business partner. Of course, as part of the soon-to-be standard Skype package, your computer comes with its own affective detectors. So when your prospective business partner starts becoming really anxious during a discussion of shared responsibilities, you can get to the root of these anxieties before they become a bigger problem.

Beyond this technological revolution (which is helping us read and understand emotion), there’s a concurrent pharmacological revolution that’s moving us to a place where we can produce desired emotions nearly on command.

In this arena, consider the work of a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and UC San Francisco who—just last week— discovered that giving people a drug that increases the reward/motivation chemical dopamine in their brain also increases their compassion.

In this study, participants were given either a placebo or the Parkinson’s drug tolcapone—which prolongs the effects of dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex and essentially does the same sort of the same thing Prozac does (though, instead of prolonging the effects of serotonin in the brain, it amplifies dopamine). Next, these participants played a money distribution game—dividing a fixed sum between known players and anonymous participants (which is a good way to measure our compassion towards anonymous strangers).

The results were conclusive: participants with more dopamine floating around their system were more prone towards pro-social behaviors—that is, they were more sensitive to fairness and less tolerant of social inequality (that is, the perceived economic gap between an anonymous stranger and a known player).

While this is an exciting breakthrough in its own right, it comes on the heals of a decade of similar discoveries. We now have an oxytocin-stimulating nasal spray, for another example, that impacts trust levels (while there mitigating factors, in simple terms the more oxytocin in our system, the more we trust the people around us).

Now, for certain, there’s ton of stuff we still don’t know. Research into SSRI’s definitely proves that there’s more to this puzzle than a single neurochemical producing a single emotion (otherwise we would have ‘cured’ depression by now), but there’s no way around the fact that if you combine these technological and pharmacological breakthroughs, we find two decades of stunning progress. In this short timespan, we’ve gone from knowing next to nothing about emotions to the point where we can read, interpret and—at least sometimes—produce these states nearly at will. Moreover, these discoveries are moving out of the lab and into the real world.

And the real world will never be the same.

The changes that are coming will be vast, but I want to point out two key areas of development.

First, let’s think about how many once “normal” conditions are now labeled pathologies (shyness has become ‘social phobia,’ sadness has become depression). Because of these new categories, according to new research by the National Institute of Mental Health, one quarter of Americans will surfer some form of mental illness. Already, these Americans are being prescribed medicines by the boatload. Now, sure, we could argue back and forth about the medical versus the diagnostic validity of these conditions, but that’s besides the point. The real point is we now live in a culture where, if you don’t like how you feel, rather than being forced to make changes to your life, we are reaching for pills to pop.

Research into things like dopamine as a compassion trigger is going to produce more pills to pop. And these pills will become more precise (meaning they’ll be far more effective than, say, today’s SSRI’s) and more readily available. What this adds up to is a profound shift in our collective mood—let’s just say that the baseline average mood will shift a few degrees up the happiness side of the curve. Sure, a happier world seems like a better world, but the real point is this is the first time in history such a shift will be possible and—like everything else—there will clearly be some unintentional consequences.

And that’s only half of this picture. The other half starts with the idea that emotions are big levers—they exist to shape and steer behavior. But, because these levers are fairly easy to pull (think about how easy it is for your parents to push your buttons), humans evolved the ability to conceal their emotional states. Yet, thanks to affective computing, the future that’s coming is a very exposed place. Your feelings—those inner experiences that have remained firmly private for all of human history—are going public. Meaning, the Emotional Economy brings with it a whole new level of radical transparency.

Taken together, these technological and pharmacological developments are producing the largest change in human emotional processing to come along in tens of thousands of years. Not only will nothing ever be the same—nothing ever will feel the same.

*For similar content, follow Steven on Twitter

[image credit: nerve cells courtesy of Shutterstock]

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and founder and executive director at the Flow Research Collective. His books include: Stealing Fire, the Rise of Superman, Abundance, Bold, West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer, among many others. His work has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes. You can find him online at:
Don't miss a trend
Get Hub delivered to your inbox