Van Gogh’s foreboding in a mid-range granularity

A Fearful Hunger for Emotional Granularity

Jonathan Cook

I’ve got an emotion for which there is no word. It begins with a lurking sense of doom gathering well within my line of sight, with a sense of something essential slipping away, being surrendered, not just by myself, but by the entire world, so slowly that no one even thinks or knows how to sound the alarm.

The feeling is vivid for me, but how can I communicate it when there is no language to refer to the concept of it?

The way is unclear, but I can no longer look away and silently pretend that it isn’t happening: The integrity of human emotion itself is under assault.

In the headquarters of Silicon Valley corporations, engineers have asserted that people only truly feel six different emotions:

There is anger.

There is disgust.

There is fear.

There is happiness.

There is sadness.

There is surprise…

…and there is nothing more.

So they tell us, anyway.

The tycoons of technology have developed devices to scan our faces for the signs of these emotions, and placed untold numbers of cameras around the world, connected to facial recognition software, to track us. With this nearly ubiquitous system, they are keeping records not only of where we go and what we do, but also how we feel about it.

They claim to have hacked the last bastion of privacy, the secrets of the human heart.

Has our humanity been so easily defeated?

Living Emotion

The boast of the digital dons to have gained mastery over emotion fall apart under the simplest of scrutiny.

In truth, the Emotion AI framework used by Affectiva, Face++, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and a host of other companies isn’t grounded in up-to-date science. Instead, Emotion AI is based on an outdated, debunked psychological theory that was developed in the middle of the last century.

We are easily intimidated by displays of data, but we know the truth. People experience many more than merely six emotions. We know this truth, because we live it ourselves.

Emotion is not found in the angle of an eyebrow or the shapes we make with our mouths. Emotion is a subjective experience that cannot be measured by a machine, because it requires a feeling being to understand what it is to feel.

We must not fall into the trap of those who tell us that we are nothing but objects to be scanned, analyzed, and sold as commodities. Our emotional lives are worth more than that.

From high to low granularity

The Scale of Our Feelings

It is true that there are some people who are only able recognize a small handful of emotions. These people are suffering from what psychologists call low emotional granularity.

Granularity is the precision with which we perceive the texture of our world. A coarsely grained perception recognizes only a few distinctions, while finely grained perception picks up on a huge range of small nuances.

People with who suffer from low emotional granularity can only identify a small number of emotions. Some people only ever develop the ability to tell when they are feeling sad, angry, or happy. Their emotional experience is equivalent to that of a person trying to navigate the world with eyesight capable only of seeing their surroundings in terms of a few huge pixels.

Most people, however, are able to distinguish between scores of different emotions. Some people can describe the precise distinctions between hundreds of subjective feelings. These people have high emotional granularity. Their emotional lives are vivid, built through the exploration of highly defined visions of the human experience.

Practically speaking, people with high emotional granularity tend to have better mental and physical health than people with low emotional granularity. They have more positive social experiences as well, because they’re able to perceive and work with the nuances of interactions with others.

The more emotions we are familiar with, the richer our human experience becomes. When we allow ourselves to be restricted to only a handful of basic emotions, our subjective lives are impoverished.

This morning, I begin the assembly of Emotional Granularity, a rewilding of the human heart. It’s a daily project of reflection and articulation. Every day, I’ll describe a specific human sentiment, an emotion that has never been dreamed of in Affectiva’s digital philosophy. Through this effort, I hope to help humanity move beyond the coarse granularity being imposed through Emotion AI, back into the rich ecosystem enabled by diverse subjective experience.

We must move beyond the nursery school emotions of mad, glad, and sad.

What we name, we can live. I’ll start here with two emotions, one dark and one thrilling.


No, to despair is not merely to feel very, very sad.

Despair is rooted in loss.

What is lost in despair is a feeling that has been lost to contemporary language, but is often translated as hope. The actual Latin word was sperare, which also birthed the concepts of speed and prosperity.

It isn’t that despair is merely the loss of the ability to move. It certainly can’t be reduced to the lack of money. Despair is the loss of the feeling of vitality that provides energy to all of our efforts. It is the feeling that there is no longer any reason to believe that anything worthwhile will come from striving.

Viktor Frankl believed that despair can be defined as the experience of suffering from which meaning has been taken away.

Ironically, some say that out of despair can come a grim resolve. Some who despair feel that because they have lost everything that really matters, they have nothing left to lose. Labor activist Cesar Chavez explained, “We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live.

Gustave Flaubert asserted that, “The most glorious moments of life are not the days of supposed success, but instead those days when, out of dejection and despair, you feel arise in you a challenge to life.”

Elie Wiesel, who, like Frankl, was a survivor of the Holocaust under the Nazis, wrote, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”


To feel the emotion of ilinx is to experience a kind of temporary turbulence that provokes a disorientation reaching down to the very core of our sense of self in the world.

Is it a French word, as some say? Not really.

French sociologist Roger Caillois borrowed the term from the ancient Greeks, who used it as a label for whirlpools and other similarly whirling things. In a framework still used by game theorists today, Caillois asserted that ilinx is one of just a few core categories of sensations created by playing. He described ilinx as “a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind… which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness”.

Ilinx can be sought for its own sake, as a kind of fun loss of control within limited parameters, as when children spin around until they fall over, giggling at their own loss of equilibrium. The subjective experience can also be pursued as a doorway to more enduring transcendence, as with the whirling dervishes, more formally known as the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, who engage in a prolonged twirling dance as a means of achieving contact with what they perceive as a sacred reality.

At both scales, ilinx can be interpreted as one form of the disorientation peculiar to liminality, a frame of mind that is created within ritual experiences. Ilinx is also discussed at great length in the rather un-ilinx German journal Ilinx, in which long pages of black letters obediently line up, not spinning even one little bit.

The emotion of Ilinx is better illustrated by the boat ride orchestrated by Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka underneath his chocolate factory.

There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going.

Cast your eye to in the weeks to come for more of these daily emotions.

Jonathan Cook

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Using thick consultation & qualitative research to pursue a human vision of commerce, emotional motivation, symbolic analysis & ritual design

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