Daniel’s Big Post on Emotions and Communication: A Response to Adam Mastroianni

Adam Mastroianni of experimental-history.com has an amazing two-part series on the ineffability of our inner emotional states and why communicating certain ideas through words is often very challenging. I highly recommend you read them both. I found these posts to be deeply insightful, beautiful, and fun, but I also felt there is a lot more to say on this topic, so I wanted to respond here.

As a quick note, Adam has very good ideas (hence my blog responding to him), but he is a one-in-ten-million writing talent — meaning you always need to be careful reading him. He is so funny and engaging that sometimes you may overlook some of the concepts in his ideas.

In “You Can’t Reach The Brain Through the Ears”, Adam recounts his efforts to dissuade people from pursuing a master’s at Oxford, despite his very critical review of the experience.

In the next post, “Sorry pal, this woo is irreducible”, Adam — well, actually, I’ll just copy Adam:

“We’ve got this kaleidoscopic inner life: emotions! thoughts! images! But your brain does not offer screen-sharing. If you want to convey what’s inside your head, all you can do is waggle your tongue and hope to vibrate other people’s ear-bones at a frequency that makes them understand.

This doesn’t work all that well, and that’s a problem, but it gets worse. Not only are we stuck describing a small part of our experience—it’s a weird little non-representative part, and other people assume that part is all there is. Like this:

In a situation like this, there’s no way the blue circle could ever expand to fill the red circle. At best, it can only reach the borders of the speech bubble—you can come to understand everything that someone is saying to you, but you can never understand the things they can’t say. It’s like trying to throw a dart at a bullseye with your eyes closed, and the only feedback you get is someone shouting at you, and even when you’re a little left of the target, they keep shouting ‘A little more to the left!’”

I want to break this down into some discrete categories:

  1. Communication is hard because words and concepts are lossy.
  2. Communication is hard because we don’t understand our own mental states or our interlocutors; our interlocutors don’t understand their own mental states.
  3. Because words and concepts are lossy, it’s very hard to understand our own mental states through introspection.
  4. We spend very little time actually getting in touch with our mental state and instead rely on cached memories of previous introspection, which is often incomplete and out of date.
  5. A lot of our emotional states are ineffable.

When Adam tells the story of being unable to persuade someone not to go to Oxford, it’s not surprising he couldn’t — there is a lot supporting someone’s decision to want to attend Oxford that Adam wasn’t necessarily grappling with. For example, going to Oxford will allow them to feel high status, avoid figuring out what they actually want in life other than having status and optionality, not have to plan or make tough decisions for the next year, while feeling adventurous and cool, etc.

Was Adam really getting through to their soul in these conversations?

Let’s imagine one of the people coming to Adam for advice on Oxford has the ability to communicate with a version of themselves twenty years in the future. This future self has completed their master’s at Oxford and has significantly reflected on the experience and how it fits into their broader life trajectory. I bet that person could persuade the individual not to go to Oxford, still using words, while Adam cannot, because this future self has access to emotional states and context that neither Adam nor the individual has.

For anyone who writes frequently, it’s clear that when you actually start writing something, you realize you don’t really understand what’s going on in your mind. It’s often a blob of related thoughts without clear structure—some points go together, some don’t really, some conflict, etc. It’s only by externalizing it and dissecting each thought in isolation, and then collectively, that you can really understand what it is you want to say.

When we try to introspect our own thoughts and emotions, we often do a first draft but never actually invest enough time to make it a clear and coherent essay.

I think there are two reasons this is a really thorny problem to improve.

One of our big problems is we rarely try to feel our emotions, to really let them sink in and introspect what they are telling us—trying to understand what their source is and what they mean.

When we do this, often infrequently, we don’t do it very intensely. We come to some superficial understanding of what we are feeling and then define it. Then the next time we want to think about our emotions, instead of going back to introspect on these emotions again, we often just note that we have them and continue to reference the concepts or words we previously used to define them in our head. Rather than sensing if we still really feel that way and trying to understand the root of it, we just go back to the lossy thought bubble of it in our head. This would be bad enough on its own, but it’s made much worse because our emotions are constantly evolving over time/influenced by different internal factors, and instead of experiencing our emotions again in this new context, we are still just referencing our shallow introspection from when we first started experiencing it.

I think people choose to rely on cached emotions rather than doing frequent introspection because grappling with our own mental states and emotions is a very scary thing — people feel shame in their emotions and would rather not confront them.

One of the treatments for those who suffer from PTSD and other forms of trauma is for them to take ecstasy and talk through their emotions. They have so many negative feelings that they ordinarily cannot engage with their emotions, but because the ecstasy is strong enough for them to not feel too much badness from grappling with their emotions, they are actually able to make progress on introspecting and accepting them.

While I don’t have PTSD or use ecstasy, I do something similar — when I attend concerts, or go on runs, or hikes, I often get lost in my own thoughts, as a background for me to process raw thoughts and emotions. The pleasant backdrop makes it much easier for me to dive into my emotions without negative feelings impairing the exploration.

The second part of this is that a lot of things we experience are simply ineffable and cannot be captured in terms of words or concepts.

You can’t just tell someone what it’s like to experience something deep or profound. You can’t just give someone the sheet music for “Mishima Closing” (one of the most beautiful compositions I know) and say, imagine how beautiful this is. This is a big part of why art specifically, but also things like travel, or novelty more generally, are so important to me. So much of life has to be experienced, rather than read or talked about. Specifically, I think art provides a glimpse into what it’s like for your body/mind/soul to experience significantly more mental states than you actually will, giving you the ability to understand ineffable emotions that could never otherwise be conveyed to you through words.